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Collins Touts Achievements in State of County Speech
By Matthew Spina
March 16, 2011
He delivered his fourth State of the County address to a friendly audience of about 200 people — mostly county appointees, elected leaders and government stakeholders. They interrupted him with applause at least 16 times and gave him a standing ovation at the end.
His 34-minute speech was nonconfrontational, except when he challenged the Legislature to renew a program that lets not-for-profits expand with government-arranged, tax-exempt financing.
Collins hit on these topics in his election-year speech:
Charter schools: Erie County government has no involvement in charter schools. But Collins chose the South Buffalo Charter School as this year's State of the County venue to trumpet the benefits of charter schools and stress that he makes decisions with younger generations in mind.
"Nationally, our students are falling behind their peers being educated in other industrialized nations," he said. "... Locally, despite per-pupil spending that trumps most private-school tuition, less than 60 percent of students graduate from City of Buffalo high schools."
"These education problems are complicated, and I don't pretend to have all the answers. But I do know that charter schools are working," he said.
Paying up front: When the books are closed on 2010, Collins will be sitting on a reserve fund of more than $70 million, about $50 million of which can be touched only in dire circumstances.
To avoid interest expenses, he would use at least $19 million of the reserve to pay for some large-scale construction projects up front, rather than use the customary method to borrow the money and repay it over years or decades.
He said he intends to pay cash for the county's $11.5 million contribution to Erie County Medical Center's new nursing home at its Grider Street campus. He also repeated that he wants to pay cash for the county's $7.5 million share for a new academic building at the Erie Community College North campus in Amherst. He said he would like to pay cash for several road projects and other county improvements.
Collins has been banking his year-end surplus dollars even though they were made possible by a category of the federal stimulus program. County lawmakers and others in the community criticized him for hoarding the millions and argued that he should spend the money on public works projects that stimulate the economy — something he says the county is now doing.
In remarks after the speech, Collins said his plans for some of the reserve fund "should silence the critics who had suggested we should use the money for construction — we are."
Medicaid: "I am not the first county executive to stand before a group and lament about New York's Medicaid program and how it has become the financial albatross around all our necks," Collins said. "And sadly, I probably won't be the last."
Collins has renewed a plea to let each New York county determine which extra Medicaid services — those not mandated by the federal government — to offer within their borders. Legislation that might allow the switch has been stalled in Albany since before Collins became county executive. Further, the legislation would only let New York request a waiver from the federal requirement that Medicaid offerings be uniform within each state.
However, with New York running the nation's most lavish Medicaid program, and Collins fearing that Albany decision-makers are only tinkering around the edges of reform, he said county governments are drowning in Medicaid costs.
"The least New York State can do is allow these governments to build their own life raft," he said.
Economic development: Collins was introduced by the Canadian consul general, Marta Moszczenska, to drive home his point that Western New York can do more to benefit from its border with Canada. He mentioned the arrival of ElectroSonic, a Canadian electronics distributor that opened a Town of Tonawanda facility.
He said other local companies helped by Erie County Industrial Development Agency financing included ValueCentric, which serves the pharmaceutical industry from its center in Orchard Park, and Bubbles Q Sauce, a maker of barbecue sauce in South Buffalo.
He called on the County Legislature to again let an arm of the county IDA arrange tax-exempt financing to nonprofits. The legislation is stalled in part because it fails to ensure that the prevailing wage goes to workers on those projects.
Afterward, Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, said the bill will resurface in the Legislature but couldn't say when.
While some Democrats tired of being treated as irrelevant by Collins were not wild about his speech, Republicans in his camp said he hit all the right notes.
"You can't argue with the numbers," Legislator Raymond W. Walter, R-Amherst, said of the county's financial position — surpluses without tax increases. "The numbers are great."