The Transparent Mr. Collins
by Geoff Kelly - posted 9:49 am, October 31, 2008
I’ll return to Steve Pigeon’s chronic deficiencies in the realm of campaign finance disclosure filings later today or tomorrow. (Next stop: Pigeon loyalist Gary Parenti’s 2006 campaign for the 158th District Assembly seat.)
But for now I’d like to turn to another fellow who won’t always share numbers with the public, or even with his colleagues: Erie County Executive Chris Collins.
On Wednesday, Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz released an analysis of Collins’ first budget. (Here’s the 40-page document if you’d like to read it for yourself. I’ll digest it here later, after listening to Poloncarz present his analysis to the Erie County Legislature this morning.)
Wednesday was October 29. According to the county charter, the comptroller ought to have released an analysis of the essential architecture of the budget—that is, its revenue and major expenditure forecasts—by October 15. That is also the date by which the executive must release his budget for the upcoming financial year. The intention, clearly, is that the legislature be presented with the executive’s budget and the comptroller’s analysis at the same time, so that legislators can weigh both and consider how to proceed.
Here’s the relevant passage in the county charter:
On or before the 1st day of October the county executive shall submit to the comptroller all revenue estimates and expenditure estimates for Medicaid, public assistance, and pension contributions and health care insurance costs for county employees to be used in the proposed budget. The comptroller shall review all revenue estimates and expenditure estimates for Medicaid, public assistance and pension contributions and health care insurance costs for county employees to be used in the proposed tentative budget prepared by the county executive and submit to the Legislature in writing by the 15th of October a report indicating whether or not such estimates are suitable estimates for the upcoming fiscal year. Should the comptroller determine that any such revenue or expenditure estimate is not suitable for the upcoming fiscal year, the Legislature, upon notice from the comptroller may revise any such revenue estimate downward upon a two-thirds majority vote and may revise any such expenditure estimate upward by a majority vote. The Legislature shall not revise any such revenue estimate upward.
So why didn’t Poloncarz provide an analysis by October 15, as the charter requires? My mistake: The comptroller provided analysis of the revenue and expenditure projections they’d been provided; that analysis was released on October 10. But the analysis did not include the county executive’s estimate of next year’s property tax levy.
Tim Callan, Polocarz’s deputy comptroller, told me that the county executive’s budget director, Greg Gach, sent his revenue and expenditure projections to the comptroller’s office late in the afternoon on October 1. But he would not provide an estimate of property tax revenues. That is the second largest revenue stream in the county budget—the largest, if you leave aside that portion of the sales tax that is distributed to local governments. An analysis of the budget is difficult to complete without that hefty slice of the pie chart.
Collins’ budget director argued the charter does not require that he provide the comptroller with an estimate of property tax revenues. That may be technically so, but Joel Giambra’s budget director last year provided an estimate of property tax revenues by October 1. Why wouldn’t Collins oblige this year?
According to Callan, the county executive asserted that the property tax levy is not a revenue source until the budget has been adopted. (Because who knows? Maybe the legislature will raise taxes, lower taxes, abolish taxes forever.) Still, Giambra’s budget director managed to conjure some numbers by October 1 last year, and surely Collins’ budget director had working figures to offer. Was Collins holding off on disclosing a proposed property tax increase as long as possible? Was Collins cutting Poloncarz out of the loop because he views him as a political rival? Did he hope to go directly to the legislature with his budget before a third party could cast a critical eye on it?
Poloncarz insisted that the county executive hand over his numbers. The county executive refused. So Poloncarz was not able to review the budget until the complete document was released, at the late last minute, on October 15. Two weeks later Poloncarz released his office’s analysis—but not before revealing that Collins had neglected, among other things, to reckon a $16 million debt to ECMC in his budget.