Chris Collins, Erie County Executive, Proposes Polar Bear Housing Amid Layoffs

A recently-defeated Republican county executive in upstate New York remains a lame duck until the end of the year, but he is now proposing laying off hundreds of employees while spending $6 million to upgrade housing for polar bears.

Erie County Executive Chris Collins, who remains in office until Dec. 31, has asked the county legislature to insert a provision in the budget using $6 million in stimulus funds and additional cuts to welfare programs to upgrade the polar bear exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo, the Buffalo News reports. Collins requested that the funds be used to cover a third of the zoo's $18 million fundraising campaign for polar bear housing. Zoo officials told the Buffalo News that the zoo could lose the polar bears if it does not renovate housing for the animals and it needs county assistance to raise the money.

Grant Loomis, a spokesman for Collins, said the administration "has always intended to allocate" unanticipated stimulus funds to a "community purpose."

"Those numbers just became clear," he said.

Funds for Collins' $6 million budget request for the zoo would come from several leftover revenue and expense lines in the 2011 budget, including stimulus funds, a fringe benefits line in the District Attorney's Office and money that had been set aside for the state's Safety Net program, among other funding sources.

Safety Net is a program to provide temporary help for those who do not qualify for other federal welfare programs.

County legislators have until December to finalize a county budget for Collins to review. In his original budget proposal, released in October, Collins called for cutting 308 jobs, including 155 that are currently filled, with most of the cuts coming from the county's Department of Social Services. In a press release touting the budget plan, Collins said that the social services cuts were proposed due to new technology programs that help with the delivery the department's services. In addition, Collins noted he has cut 940 jobs in his tenure in order to balance the county budget.

Collins, a former business executive and 1998 congressional candidate, was defeated in his bid for a second term earlier this month by County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz (D). During the campaign, Poloncarz attacked Collins for cutting county funding for smaller cultural groups in the region in past budgets.

Collins was elected in 2007 primarily on a fiscal platform. His predecessor, Joel Giambra (R), had presided over a county government that teetered on the edge of bankruptcy following budget cuts combined with spending increases. A state control board was put into place during Giambra's term. On his county website, Collins touts that he runs the county like a business. He has made the Six Sigma program a major part of his governing strategy.

Collins had been considered a potential challenger to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for the governor's mansion in 2014, prior to his reelection defeat. Collins considered running for governor in 2010 before saying he wanted to focus on county government. Prior to exiting the 2010 gubernatorial field, it was reported that he had compared state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), an Orthodox Jew, to Hitler and the "anti-Christ."