Erie County

Erie County Legislator Submits Pay-To-Play Plan

From the Morning Memo:

New York candidates for statewide office have already made the need to crack down on so-called “pay-to-play” a campaign issue this year, and it’s a safe bet that how to deal with that will continue to be debated through the November election.

In Western New York, Erie County Legislator Pat Burke has submitted his own plan for addressing a problem he insists is not an issue at the county government level, but is clearly an issue higher up the political food chain.

The Democrat is running for state Assembly, and clearly is interested in making pay-to-play a campaign issue of his own. He said he has been wanting to address campaign finance reform since becoming an elected official, and sees an opportunity while fundraising is making headlines to push the legislation forward because “public trust in government is at an all-time low.”

Burke’s legislation would limit the amount any elected official or candidate for county office could accept to $100 from any individual or entity entering into a contract with Erie County worth more than $5,000. 

“This is a small community, and influence is relegated to a few people,” Burke said. “So the money that those in power receive in campaign donations has to be transparent.”

This plans is similar to the recent proposal from GOP gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro, which would ban any state contractor from making donations to elected officials.

Other components of Burke’s bill address increased transparency and reporting standards for government contractors and penalties for violations.

ECWA Saga Continues

From the Morning Memo:

We’re learning more regarding this week’s scathing report about the Erie County Water Authority, and the drastic actions officials there took in reaction to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The report, released Tuesday by the state Authorities Budget Office, criticizes the ECWA board for operating under a “veil of secrecy,” failing to properly comply with FOIL asks and acting on contracts without first doing due diligence.

A portion of the report referred to the board quickly declaring an emergency upon receiving a request for documents and bringing in a local law firm, but it did not specifically state what caused that emergency.

According to a response from the Water Authority to a FOIA request from Spectrum News’ Alex Haight, it was in relation to reporting done by Buffalo non-profit watchdog the Investigative Post.

The authority subsequently paid more than $140,000 to Phillips Lytle for “review of the legal and potential environmental issues relating to the Investigative Post publications, and advice, potential litigation and/or negotiations regarding these issues.” It was signed by then-Executive Director Earl Jann.

Thursday, the board voided Jann’s contract and with it likely his now-infamous “golden parachute” – a full salary guarantee through 2020. A spokesperson could not say why he was fired or what his severance would be.

Some county legislators are also calling for the resignation of the board’s chairman Jerome Schad, who has so far refused to step down. Schad was not chairman during 2016 and 2017, the time period outlined in the ABO report, but is the only remaining member from that period.

Erie County Clerk Takes Preemptive Stance On Licenses For Undocumented Immigrants

From the Morning Memo:

The Erie County Clerk will preemptively announce today the county’s auto bureaus will not process drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, regardless of what the state Legislature does.

Both the state Senate and Assembly are currently considering legislation to institute the policy. Other advocates believe the governor can move forward on his own through an executive order.

However, County Clerk Mickey Kearns said there are already avenues for non-citizens to obtain licenses if they have the appropriate documentation. Kearns also noted auto bureaus are already facing a high volume of customers and do not need the extra strain.

“As the County Clerk elected by the taxpayers of Erie County to look out for their best interests, I cannot in good conscious follow through on a policy that will violate federal laws by knowingly providing government identification to illegal immigrants,” he said.

Kearns also pointed out a similar proposal from then-Governor Elliot Spitzer failed in 2007 after “significant backlash” from county clerks. He plans on writing a letter to the State Clerk’s Association calling for a resolution against the policy.

“As what happened more than a decade ago, there was widespread opposition, with many county clerk’s refusing to enforce this policy in their auto bureaus. I expect the same response should the legislature and Governor plan to move forward with this proposal,” Kearns said.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to our request for a response but the Erie County Democratic Committee chairman had one of his own. 

“If Michael Kearns is unwilling to uphold the oath that he swore to the citizens of Erie County just months after taking it, he should resign immediately,” Jeremy Zellner tweeted.

Kearns is a registered Democrat but ran for clerk with the endorsement of the local Republican committee. He had already,for all intents and purposes, been disowned by Erie County Democratic leadership.

ECWA Fairs Poorly In Customers Satisfaction Study

From the Morning Memo:

It’s a tale of two county water authorities.

J.D. Power released its third annual study measuring the satisfaction level of water utility customers. The Rochester region faired quite well.

In fact, the Monroe County Water Authority tied for first with the Boston Water and Sewer Commission in the Northeast region. Its score of 735 was well above the 709 average.

The Erie County Water Authority, on the other hand, scored a 669 – the third worst in the region.

ECWA in the past several months has made more headlines due to its reputation as a political patronage pit than for its actual service to customers. The board was accused of handing its executive director a lucrative severance package at the beginning of the year – a so-called Golden Parachute should he be pushed out by the new Democratic-controlled leadership team.

More recently, the authority was revealed to be withholding its final payments to Zeppelin Communications, the public relations firm with which it had a contract until earlier this month.

The board is questioning ZeppCom’s billing practice, while the company’s managing director, veteran GOP consultant Michael Caputo, (who’s not doing too badly in the headline-generating department himself, thanks to his ties to the 2016 Trump campaign), is threatening to sue.

Despite the slew of bad press, ECWA has insisted it is focused on its mission to provide safe, high-quality and affordable drinking water through reliable infrastructure to its customers.

But the results of this latest survey suggested it might not be doing a very good job of that. The poll looked at six main factors: delivery, price, conservation, billing and payment, communications, and customer service.

“While the mandated water quality reports produced by regional water authorities do a great job of measuring specific water quality issues, they are not telling the whole story when it comes to perceptions of the water that is coming out of customers’ faucets,” said Andrew Heath, senior director of the Utility Practice at J.D. Power.

“Whether it’s a serious problem like high lead or mineral counts, or a more subjective issue like bad taste or low pressure, a significant number of residential water utility customers are not happy with the product. Water utilities need to understand why customer views are not matching the views of the water utility and need to address these concerns.”

Across the nation, 88 utilities that deliver water to at least 400,000 people were measured. It is important to note that J.D. Power studies are based on entirely on customer opinions, so thanks to the slew of bad press, there could potentially be a bit of a chicken and egg situation in Erie County.

WNY Reactions to Schneiderman Resignation

From the Morning Memo:

Many people in Western New York were surprised by the allegations of violence toward women lobbied against Attorney General Eric Schneiderman which led to his resignation Monday night.

Others that knew him didn’t seem altogether shocked.

Buffalo City Comptroller Mark Schroeder’s tenure in the state Assembly overlapped with Schneiderman’s in the state Senate from 2005 to 2010, but he was never a fan of the fellow Democrat.

In fact, while many lined up behind Schneiderman for Attorney General eight years ago, Schroeder supported another colleague, Richard Brodsky for the seat.

“I served with him in the Legislature but I did not support him for AG for the same reason I never supported (former Assembly Speaker Sheldon) Silver,” Schroeder said. “I didn’t trust him.”

The now-former prosecutor was sometimes accused of allowing personal grudges to influence the cases he pursued (something he consistently denied). The most recent example was election law charges brought against current and former Republican state Senators George Maziarz and Rob Ortt. The charges against Ortt were ultimately dismissed, but the senator clearly has not forgotten about the ordeal.

“Under our justice system and in the court of public opinion, the Attorney General deserves a presumption of innocence. But because Mr. Schneiderman has repeatedly shown himself time to be more interested in political grand-standing and his own self-aggrandizement than he is in pursuing justice, I do not believe there is any doubt that he or his office would be able to fairly investigate these allegations of misogynistic assault, death threats, and drug use,” he said.

Schneiderman certainly had allies in Western New York as well. As recently as April, the Erie County Democratic Committee hosted a fundraiser featuring the Attorney General.

Still, party chair Jeremy Zellner said his resignation was appropriate.

“The AG has done the right thing by putting the interest of the people of NY before all other considerations,” Zellner wrote on Twitter. “As a result of his resignation, the important work of the AG’s office will go forward, unimpeded by personal impropriety.”

He suggested President Donald Trump should resign as well though, “in light of his own many alleged and self described actions.”

Erie County Comptroller: State Mandated Notices Cost Nearly $160k Per Year

The Erie County Comptroller’s Office said it may be more prudent for the county to distribute mandated public notices online and via social media rather than the current practice of printing them in local newspapers.

According to its report, released Friday, the county has spent nearly $160,000 on average over the last five years on advertisements for things like public hearings, requests for proposals and bond resolutions. State law currently requires governments to post this type of information in papers but Republican Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw said the rule is outdated and another example of an unfunded mandate.

“Almost $800,000 over five years is a lot of money,” he said. “Counties should be given a choice on how public notices are published. We should be given options on how to share important public information, at the lowest cost possible.”

The report noted newspaper readership has declined considerably while roughly 70 percent of American use social media platforms. The comptroller said the internet and those platforms did not exist when the laws were originally created, but now the offer a low cost alternative for public notices.

The report recommended the County Legislature fully examine the issue to determine if the goals of notifying the public can be done more effectively and efficiently. If it is determined alternative methods make more sense, the office recommended the legislature work with its state delegation to update the law.

In Western New York, the Buffalo News has received the vast majority of the payments although smaller publications like the Buffalo Challenger and the local Bee Group papers have also received county funds to publish the notices.

NY-27: ‘Green Party’ Candidate Drops Out

A candidate for the Green Party line in New York’s 27th Congressional District, who the party said was a Republican plant, has declined the nomination. Known GOP operatives, including former Assembly candidate Ross Kostecky, circulated petitions for West Seneca resident Michael Zak earlier this month.

On Tuesday, Kostecky also signed off as the Notary Public on Zak’s Certificate of Declination. The move came after several media reports, including one from Capital Tonight, about the situation.

“It’s so obvious that it was an underhanded, awful, undemocratic thing to do. So the public pressure was on them and they backed down,” Erie County Green Party Chairman Eric Jones said.

Jones believed Republican incumbent Chris Collins campaign was behind the effort to “steal” the line, although a Collins spokesperson denied that accusation. Zak had never run for office before and very recently registered Green.

Capital Tonight reached out to his listed phone number yesterday, and was hung up on while explaining why we were calling.

“Obviously when reporters are knocking at his door and calling him, he probably was like, hey, this isn’t what I signed up for,” Jones said.

The party was planning on challenging the signatures, although it was not optimistic about the prospects of winning that challenge. Jones said Zak dropping out will allow the party to focus on more important matters like the gubernatorial campaign for Green candidate Howie Hawkins.

The declination was submitted yesterday before the state board of elections deadline.

EC Legislature Approves Payout Ban For Employees Accused Of Workplace Misconduct

From the Morning Memo:

The Erie County Legislature unanimously passed a resolution Thursday banning payouts to managerial staff or department heads facing felony criminal charges related to workplace misconduct unless those employees are cleared.

The bill, sponsored by the Republican conference, was in response to a recent report former Department of Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger received nearly $20,000 for unused vacation, holiday and comp time.

Dirschberger resigned last year at the request of the county executive amid accusations he raped a female subordinate while both were attending a conference in Albany. That case is still playing out in Albany County court.

The legislators said under previous administrations, payments had been withheld. The resolution requires that be the official practice moving forward.

“While Mr. Dirschberger never should have received a payout until criminal proceedings were completed, we now have a set of rules in place to prevent this egregious practice in the future,” Minority Leader Joe Lorigo said. “I am pleased to have support for this measure on both sides of the aisle.”

After taxes and other deductions, Dirschberger netted roughly $10,000. His attorney said the case is still in the discovery/motion stage and the judge has not yet scheduled a trial date.

The county is also facing a potential civil lawsuit from the alleged victim and has launched an independent investigation regarding whether the situation was handled appropriately.

Erie Co Exec Slams Clerk’s Proposal To Expand Auto Bureau

From the Morning Memo:

Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns is asking the County Legislature to approve 11 additional civil service positions, immediately, in order to support extended hours at the area’s auto bureaus.

Kearns said the bureaus are entering peak times in the eight-year cycle of license renewals, and have already seen the frequency of those transactions increase more than 300 percent from last year.

“We are seeing exponential increases in transactions every year, yet no new civil servants have been hired in nearly ten years to alleviate the stress affecting our Auto Bureaus,” the clerk explains. “As a result, there can be two hour waits at your local Auto Bureau. It’s unacceptable, and I’m going to fix this problem by working together with our partners in the Legislature.”

Kearns, a former Democratic assemblyman elected on the Republican line last fall, said he has identified a way to add Saturday services and expand hours of operation at no cost to the taxpayer. He recommended using funds from a $1.5 million county trust to cover the new employees’ salaries, which would amount to $338,000 in 2018.

Kearns argued that the office ran a surplus budget of $772,661 last year, and is the actually only office that creates surplus revenue for Erie County.

“New York State has shown a lack of urgency to assist local Auto Bureaus in this significant uptick in transactions,” he said. “As an agency of the state, the Erie County Auto Bureaus have inherited this problem, but are being forced to independently come up with a solution.”

“Our staff at the Auto Bureaus are working diligently every day to serve Erie County taxpayers in a timely manner, however the numbers no longer add up. Since New York State is reluctant to provide local support, hiring additional workers will allow us to both better serve the taxpayers and ease the immense burden on our staff.”

The proposal received swift and biting criticism from Democratic Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. He said the account Kearns is targeting was created to generate interest from idle funds, d credit agencies would not look kindly at dipping into it.

The county executive said if Kearns wants to increase his staff, he should submit that proposal as part of the budget process for next year.

“The Clerk Trust account exists solely for the purpose of creating new revenue for Erie County through investment of idle funds, certainly not for the purpose of creating new patronage jobs for the clerk’s office,” Poloncarz said. “This scheme would subvert that account and also eliminate a revenue-producing stream for the residents of Erie County.”

“No Clerk or Comptroller in Erie County history has so willingly and brazenly proposed spending restricted trust funds to fund new operating expenditures and it is discouraging to see it happening now. In addition, it is worrisome that the clerk has not yet been on the job for even four months and is already eager to increase his staff significantly, regardless of the long-term costs this will impose on county residents.”

Kearns has asked for the Legislature to consider his proposal on Thursday.

Erie County: Proposed $500 M In Amazon Tax Breaks Seemed Reasonable

From the Morning Memo:

Alas, we’ll never know the controversy it could have become.

Imagine a scenario in which Buffalo won one the most competitive and largest development projects in the history of the country… then the project was submarined because the Industrial Development Agency wouldn’t approve the very tax breaks used to lure the company to Western New York.

Buffalo’s proposal did not survive the initial cut as Amazon searches for its second North American headquarters, despite including more than $500 million in taxpayer-funded incentives. That didn’t include what the state put on the table, which at this point remains confidential, but is safe to assume is a significant figure.

“If we didn’t make it to the next round, I can’t imagine, truthfully, what the rest of the communities in the United States are offering. They have to be astronomical amounts,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said.

Poloncarz pointed out, however, the company qualified for the incentives, given the scope of the project, under the IDA’s guidelines. The agency’s board had not voted to give final approval.

County leaders did not expect we would ever have that hypothetical controversy even if they were still in the running. The $500 million dollars in incentives would have come over 11 years but actually paid out over a 25 year period.

In essence, 50,000 new jobs would cost the county about $400 per job each year. County Legislator Joe Lorigo said it’s a reasonable price considering those new employees would be likely living and spending their money in the region.

“Really it’s immeasurable to say, to determine how big of an impact 50,000 new jobs would have on this area,” he said.

Invest Buffalo Niagara, the region’s economic arm, conceded the incentives for the project would have been unprecedented, but noted the project and the RFP process were unprecedented in their own right.