Kathleen C. Hochul and Chris Collins built their political careers in Erie County government on efforts to streamline cumbersome bureaucracies.
But they also left behind offices that have been forced to deal with the fallout from decisions they made.
Collins, the Republican former county executive, signed a deal with Erie County Medical Center that turned out to be far from the "fixed subsidy" arrangement he describes it as.
Hochul, the Democratic former county clerk, revamped the way the office accepts real estate records - a change that led to piles of unprocessed documents after she left.
The decisions they made then - and what has happened since - have become fodder for partisan criticism against the two candidates as they vie for the 27th Congressional District seat currently held by Hochul. The criticisms have left them defending their legacies in county government:
Kathleen C. Hochul
Hochul had a reputation as a county clerk focused on customer service. She moved the downtown Auto Bureau into the county-owned Rath Building, reduced wait times at the state Department of Motor Vehicles offices and allowed court documents to be filed electronically.
But it was one of the last ideas she implemented before deciding to run for Congress that has overshadowed her four years as county clerk.
The idea was this: Improve the speed at which real estate documents appear online by consolidating what had been four tasks done by different people into a job done by one cashier. The plan was for the cashier to hand the original documents back to the customer, reducing the cost of postage and modernizing the process.
"Slowly, methodically, we had to find a better way," said Hochul, who left the County Clerk's Office in early June 2011.
In January 2011, she had moved employees who had been doing backroom tasks to the front desk and began training. Hochul said she knew that the process would take a long time to correctly implement because it required training, new equipment and updated software.
The plan, however, changed after then-Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, resigned suddenly from Congress in February 2011. By March, Hochul was officially a candidate for Congress. By June 2011, she was headed to Washington.
By late 2011, there was a problem in the County Clerk's Office. More than 100,000 documents were piled in boxes waiting to be verified that they had been inputted correctly, and mail with checks in it waited to be processed.
"It appeared evident to us that the system that the previous county clerk initiated in early 2011 was in the implementation stages and not completed when she left the position," auditors for the County Comptroller's Office wrote after reviewing the situation. "The first deputy became the interim county clerk and was awaiting the appointment of a successor. It appears that there was a breakdown in communication and system support during this time."
Last year, only 16 percent of the documents recorded in the Registrar Division went through verification, the final step before an original document can be returned to a homeowner or attorney.
While none of the unprocessed checks dated from Hochul's time in the office, the verification backlog did. The comptroller's staff found documents recorded in February 2011 - prior to Lee's resignation - still waiting to be verified.
Hochul remains convinced that the process would have improved the way the office records land documents and would have prepared it for technological changes and the potential for downsizing.
"I think if we continued, it would have been really good progress for the County Clerk's Office," Hochul said.
The plan, she said, was to roll out the new process in stages - with the expectation that the final verification work would eventually also be rolled in.
"This is all what was going on when I left," Hochul said. "And I think anybody who looked at it now, that was really the way we needed to go. There are growing pains, of course, but we were on the verge of implementing, really, a culture shift in this office that would have brought it into the 21st century."
There is no doubt that after losing his bid for re-election in 2011, Collins left Erie County on stronger financial footing than when he took office in 2008. Back then, the county still struggled to replenish its cash reserves after the 2004-05 fiscal crisis, and its credit rating hovered just above junk status.
During Collins' four years in office, the county's state-appointed financial control board softened, its bond ratings improved, and money on hand for unexpected expenses swelled with the help of federal dollars from an economic-stimulus package and better-than-expected sales tax revenue.
The county, on the day Collins left office, had $83 million set aside for unbudgeted general expenses - still not as much as the Wall Street ratings agencies would like, but more than twice the $35 million on hand when he took office, according to county financial reports.
But looming bills the county will owe for care at ECMC and its nursing home have the potential to cut into those reserves and have sent attorneys for the hospital and the county back to the negotiating table to rework a 2009 deal that Collins once proclaimed would take "a financial unknown off the table" and would allow "the county to accurately budget and plan for years to come."
The payments the county has to make on behalf of ECMC have ballooned to well above the annual $16.2 million that Collins described as a "fixed subsidy." That is actually the minimum amount the county must pay each year under the agreement. This year, the county has already paid $17 million, and budget officials have estimated that the total bill could be more than $40 million.
The reason is that the agreement couldn't cap money the county is required by the federal government to pay to help make up for losses the hospital and nursing home take on because they care for a disproportionate share of poor and underinsured patients. That's according to county and hospital officials, who are now renegotiating the 2009 deal so that those payments don't send the county budget into an operating deficit.
The unpredictable payments have worried analysts from the ratings agency Moody's Investors Service, which last month cited "uncertain financial obligations" to ECMC as one of three "challenges" the county faces.
While those payments have risen well above what officials expected in 2009, Collins and hospital executives still describe the deal as a good one for Erie County because it relieved the county of a long list of obligations - including the cost of retiree health insurance for employees who worked at the hospital before it became a public benefit corporation, annual payments on debt, payments for capital improvements and a requirement that the county pay all hospital operating losses.
"The point is, people have lost track," said Collins, who still counts the agreement among his accomplishments. "We're talking $50 million to $60 million a year in savings, potentially. Imagine having unlimited liability, whether the hospital is well-run or not, and, all of a sudden, some year they lose $100 million. Very possible."
Under the old agreement, he said, the county would have been stuck with those bills. The hospital estimates the county's savings from the deal as at least $310 million through the next two decades.
"I get a little aggravated when people suggest, or even hint, that that wasn't the deal of the century," Collins said.
While Collins and Hochul have had to face questions raised by their successors, a University at Buffalo professor said that neither issue is likely to swing a large portion of voters.
"The idea of sending a message to the voters - vote for me because I didn't create procedures that are marginally more inefficient than existing procedures - that's not something that's really going to appeal to a lot of voters," said James C. Battista, UB assistant professor of political science. "It's something that, at best, might help to solidify voters who were really on the margin between turning out or not."