The race for Erie County comptroller features an incumbent with less than a year’s experience on the job and a perennial candidate with no record in elected office.
Despite having been in office for only 10 months, Republican Stefan I. Mychajliw says he has initiated major reforms in his department, reduced his staff and cut his budget. He also boasts that his office has performed more than double the number of audits and reviews during his short tenure than were conducted by the two comptrollers who preceded him in 2011 and 2012.
“We’ve had a great year in the office of comptroller,” Mychajliw said.
His Democratic challenger, Kevin P. Gaughan, covets a chance to take over, going so far as to promise to not seek another public office if voters elect him comptroller Nov. 5.
Gaughan made an unsuccessful bid for Buffalo mayor in 2005, had an aborted run for a State Senate seat in 2006 and lost a race for the Assembly last year.
After revealing that he was in debt to the IRS for more than $5,000 in unpaid federal income taxes, Gaughan defended his fitness to provide oversight of the county’s annual $1.5 billion fiscal operation.
“I’m not a perfect candidate,” Gaughan said. “Indeed, I am a very imperfect vessel for this or any other office in our community and, for the last 15 years as an unimportant civic leader, I’ve made that abundantly clear.”
“But I’ve also made abundantly clear my commitment to this community and my skills,” he added.
A Hamburg native and Harvard University graduate, Gaughan, 59, has more than 25 years of experience in finance and securities law as a private-practice attorney. He is best known for his advocacy of reducing the size of local governments, including successful campaigns to shrink municipal boards in Amherst, Alden and Orchard Park, which he says has saved taxpayers $4.8 million annually.
“For the past seven years, I’ve devoted my civic work to studying, pursuing, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and writing comprehensive studies on the budgets and balance sheets of every one of the county’s 45 local governments,” Gaughan said.
“I understand how they work … what their true costs are, and I understand where the bodies are buried,” he added.
Gaughan said the ideal candidate for the comptroller’s office would be a certified internal auditor with a broad knowledge of municipal finance, credentials he acknowledges that neither he nor Mychajliw possesses.
For his part, Mychajliw, 39, said his background as a local TV reporter with extensive experience covering the county’s 2006 red/green budget crisis and subsequent ownership of a public relations firm have put him in good stead to manage the comptroller’s office.
The son of Polish and Ukrainian immigrants, Mychajliw grew up on Buffalo’s East Side and is a graduate of Syracuse University.
“I think the most important aspect of the job of being comptroller is being a strong manager and a strong leader, and I’ve hired great people and surrounded myself with strong people,” Mychajliw said.
While his critics have accused him of politicizing the comptroller’s office, Mychajliw insists he has not only proven he can handle the job but has done it well. His first audit was of his own department, resulting in a 14 percent reduction of the comptroller’s budget, he said.
“I’m really proud of my record in this first year in office. I left the comptroller’s office in much better shape than what I inherited, no question,” Mychajliw said.
Regardless of who is elected, an audit of the Erie County Water Authority seems assured.
“If there is one thing I could do as comptroller, it would be to make people believe that that’s no longer a terrible patronage pit to reward political cronies,” Gaughan said of the authority.
Mychajliw said his office has already begun that inquiry.
“One of the things we’re looking at is the golden parachutes they’re giving out to people who leave Water Authority employment. It’s a slap in the face to every hardworking taxpayer in Erie County,” he said.