on November 6, 2013 - 12:04 AM
, updated November 6, 2013 at 2:22 AM
In a blowout Tuesday, Republican incumbent Stefan I. Mychajliw was elected to his first full term as Erie County comptroller, easily besting Democratic challenger Kevin P. Gaughan.
“This vote confirms that the voters want strong checks and balances in county government. It’s the people’s mandate that they want lower spending and lower taxes in county government,,” Mychajliw said late Tuesday night.
Despite speculation that he might be poised to take on County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz in 2015, Mychajliw said his “sole focus is on being the best possible taxpayers’ watchdog over the next four years.”
The battle between the high-profile candidates for comptroller centered largely on their qualifications to provide oversight of Erie County’s nearly $1.4 billion budget.
Mychajliw, a former TV news reporter and co-owner of a public relations firm, first took office in January, but otherwise has no background in municipal finance.
Neither has Gaughan, a private-practice attorney, who acknowledged that a certified internal auditor might be the best qualified for the job.
Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy lobbed the first volley against Gaughan, revealing in late September that Gaughan owed at least $5,000 in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. Gaughan acknowledged the debt, saying it occurred while caring for his ill mother, but would not reveal the exact amount until two weeks ago when he said he had paid off the $28,000 tax bill after voluntarily contacting the IRS to work out a repayment plan.
Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner countered by raising questions about Mychajliw’s past employment record at two local TV stations, while Gaughan pointed to his history of work on downsizing local governments as giving him a knowledge of municipal finances that Mychajliw lacked.
During the final two weeks of the campaign, the candidates took their battle to the airwaves, with Mychajliw releasing a TV advertising campaign saying he saved taxpayers about $500,000 his first day in office by cutting staff and initiating other reforms in the comptroller’s office. In a subsequent ad, Mychajliw attacked Gaughan for his tax debt.
Gaughan also released two TV ads, the first discussing his record on government reform as a citizen activist, which he claimed has helped save local taxpayers $50 million over 10 years. 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 said has saved taxpayers $4.8 million annually.
In his second ad, Gaughan went after Mychajliw for what Gaughan said were distortions Mychajliw was promulgating about his tax debt.
Mychajliw, 39, was first elected in a special election in November 2012 to fill the unexpired term of Poloncarz after Poloncarz was elected county executive in 2011. Over his roughly 10 months in office, Mychajliw boasted 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.
Perhaps the most controversial of these was an audit of the screening of county residents seeking Department of Social Services assistance earlier this spring. Auditors said they were alerted by workers that copies of personal documents submitted by residents seeking benefits – such as birth certificates, medical records and tax returns – were being improperly stored in unsecured totes.
However, the administration argued that the records breach was identified and corrected by the administration well before Mychajliw went public with his audit, and they accused Deputy Comptroller Teresa M. Fraas of using deception to gain access to a tote that already was in a secure location when the comptroller’s office seized it.
Mychajliw’s detractors – in particular, the Poloncarz administration – have accused him of politicizing the comptroller’s office.
Gaughan, 59, was recruited as the Democrats’ choice after Lynn M. Szalkowski, a certified public accountant from Lake View and the original endorsed candidate, dropped out of the race in July. Gaughan had previously 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. He promised not to seek another public office if voters elected him comptroller.