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Poloncarz, Dixon square off in first county executive debate

Mike Desmond

Priorities, spending, taxes, the future home of the Buffalo Bills, economic development and the red/green budget. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and county legislator Lynne Dixon squared off at Hilbert College Wednesday night in their first debate.

With Election Day five weeks away, the candidate debate season is heating up. This time, the incumbent and his challenger faced questions from moderator Keith Wesolowski.

The issues were clear and the candidates had their talking points. Dixon pushed hard on her call for different priorities in county government, while Poloncarz released his budget on Monday showing his priorities as he seeks a third term.

Poloncarz said his fiscal management showed in the last vestige of former county executive Joel Giambra's red/green budget being cast off.

"Just last Friday, the New York State Comptroller's Office announced that Erie County is no longer considered a county in fiscal distress or susceptible to fiscal distress," he said. "In 2018, they announced that our numbers are so good we are no longer part of that. It just tells you, it took us only a year or two to get into financial crisis, but it took us 14-15 years to get out of it."

During the debate, the county executive took a lot of pot shots at predecessors who created the fiscal mess and put the county under a control board. Dixon attacked the statements, saying the county has not been in fiscal distress for years.

"I would point to the fact that the property tax levy has gone up now 29% in the past eight years. We've grown the county budget almost $200 million over the course of the past eight years. We tried to provide the tax levy cut this past year in the legislature. That was prevented because we were told it would create fiscal crisis. We ended up having a $40 million surplus," Dixon said.

The tax rate is dropping, but as the economy improves in the county and house values rise, the tax levy—actual tax collections—goes up.

Poloncarz said his development strategy is providing jobs, like attracting Canadian businesses.

"They came to the Bills games. They came to the Sabres games. Heck, when the Leafs are here, they take over the arena. They go skiing at Ellicottville. They shop at our malls, but they did not invest in our community," he said. "So we set up an initiative to get Canadian businesses to come here and the numbers are very strong. Working with Invest Buffalo Niagara, we have 45 projects that came to Buffalo and Niagara County, combined. They have invested $150 million."

Poloncarz said county investment in the old Bethlehem Steel site, where his father worked, is creating a private investment environment with a major employer coming.

Dixon said there have to be more incentives to encourage private investment.
"I look at the ECIDA right now and the makeup of the ECIDA. I see it as largely regulatory and not incentivizing businesses to come here and stay here," Dixon said. "We can do so much more to encourage businesses to come here and stay here and to expand here, if we provide the proper training and if we provide the proper environment for them to do so and if we provide more incentives."

Dixon said incentives helped in the downtown Buffalo boom.

One issue the two somewhat agreed on was the future of the Skyway. Dixon said she commutes on the bridge, with thousands of southtowns residents.

"I know when they close half the Skyway. I see the backup it causes and the problems and the issues that are caused. I am one of those 42,000-43,000 vehicles that crosses the Skyway on a daily basis and when the discussions to tear it down without any real plan except for the bridge on Tifft doesn't handle 43,000 vehicles a day," Dixon said.

Dixon also questioned whether the tens of millions of dollars to tear down the span and provide a replacement are the best use for spending.

Poloncarz said there is no point planning the demolition until there is a plan for the traffic.

"There's no discussion on why we tear down the Skyway unless you actually go ahead and move ahead on that, knowing you are talking hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars," Poloncarz said. "When I saw the designs that came out of the governor's office, I said, 'Really, you are going to take down the Skyway and keep it still up,' because one of the things that the Skyway currently does is keep us from actually developing the waterfront. If you're going to take down the Skyway, take the whole thing down."

Poloncarz pointed out the state just spent tens of millions of dollars on fixing up the bridge and the rehab is almost finished.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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