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Erie County Executive Grossman reflects on his first 100 days on the job: Grossman earns praise for job he's done so far
[April 19, 2010]

Erie County Executive Grossman reflects on his first 100 days on the job: Grossman earns praise for job he's done so far

Apr 19, 2010 (Erie Times-News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Erie County Executive Barry Grossman hardly expected to be hospitalized and recovering from a lower leg infection a little more than three months into his first term in office.

But there he was at Hamot Medical Center on Tuesday, which marked Grossman's 100th day in county government's top job after being sworn in on Jan. 4.

Grossman, who received antibiotics and other treatment at Hamot since April 9, was released from the hospital Tuesday.

But during his stay, Grossman kept working on county business.

He kept in touch with county officials via telephone and conducted news media interviews, as his swollen right leg rested on a chair, per doctor's orders.

He might not return to his fifth-floor office at the Erie County Courthouse until this week, but Grossman pledged to continue tending to county business.

The reason, Grossman said, is simple: he's got plenty of crucial county issues to deal with.

"I'm reachable by phone. I didn't need to name an acting (county executive)," said Grossman, 64, who is recovering from a skin infection called cellulitis.

"There's a good thing about being over 60. I'm not thinking about my keeping this job or my next job," Grossman said. "But people over 60 like me are more subject to health issues.

"The minute I feel I don't have the physical or mental capacity to do this job, I'll leave it," Grossman said. "But I'm nowhere close to that point." An Erie businessman and restaurateur who ran for Erie mayor in 2005, Grossman campaigned on a platform that included promises to control county spending; forge a good relationship with County Council; convince local residents that a community college is a worthwhile investment; and make appointments to key county positions based on merit, not politics.

He ordered a $750,000 county spending freeze less than a month after taking office, and said he believes his administration is delivering on those promises.

No mandate Grossman defeated Republican Mike Kerner in November's municipal election by 343 votes.

The race was closer than many local political watchers expected, given Grossman's name recognition; the fact that he upset his predecessor, incumbent Democrat Mark DiVecchio, in the May primary; and Kerner's relative anonymity.

Despite the close victory, Grossman appears to be settling into the job well, said Robert Speel, an associate political-science professor at Penn State Behrend.

"He seems to proceed slowly and carefully with any major policy, which is probably good. ... A lot of people tend not to like abrupt change," Speel said.

"He reacts quickly, studies issues and takes action when necessary, such as with problems with the (county's) 911 center," Speel said. "Plans to create a local community college continue to go forward, but not at too quick a pace. I think most people have been satisfied with his performance." John Elliott, chief executive of the Economic Development Corp. of Erie County, is among those who likes what he's seen from Grossman.

Even though County Council cut the county's economic development director out of the 2010 budget, Elliott said, Grossman is keeping tabs on important local projects, such as efforts to establish a multimillion-dollar transportation hub in the Erie region.

The county has already provided the project with $3 million in seed money.

"We're meeting regularly (with Grossman's staff) to compare notes and talk about priorities," Elliott said. "The support has been everything we could have hoped for." 'They were testing me' In a recent interview, Grossman talked at length about his first three-plus months in office and the challenges ahead: - On the community college, Grossman said he will continue working to sell the new school's merits to the public.

"The man on the street needs to feel his voice is being heard on this issue," Grossman said.

Grossman believes a community college would help Erie build a skilled work force and provide a more affordable educational opportunity to many local residents -- much more affordable than the region's four-year colleges or for-profit trade schools.

Some, however, have voiced fear about how much financial risk faces taxpayers.

- Grossman called his relationship with the seven-member County Council a good one, even though council shot down his request in January to boost salaries for several of his top staffers, including Director of Administration Gerry Mifsud and Personnel Director Peter Callan.

Council Chairman Kyle Foust said that issue made for a "rocky start" to the relationship between Grossman and the panel, but things have smoothed since then.

"Once we got beyond that, he's done his best to reach out and keep council informed," Foust said. "His administration has tried to think through things and not be in a big hurry, where they make mistakes." Said Grossman: "They were testing me, feeling me out. I had no credibility with them. But they're all reasonable people." - Fixing problems at the county's 911 center in Summit Township, Grossman said, is one of his top priorities.

The complex has made a number of dispatching mistakes and has experienced equipment failures, staffing issues and other problems. A county-commissioned $77,602 study by the firm L. Robert Kimball & Associates outlined "major deficiencies" with the $14 million complex that could threaten the safety of emergency responders and residents, but also pronounced the system fixable.

"It was a much bigger project than anybody anticipated," Grossman said of the 911 center, adding that addressing problems with radio communications between the center and local emergency responders could require "a significant (financial) investment." Other issues - Grossman called his merit selection committees -- panels of local professionals who helped Grossman choose a personnel director (Callan), chief public defender (Darrel Vandeveld) and human services director (Shari Gross) -- his proudest accomplishment.

"Elected officials must strive to make sure that the selection process is untainted by nepotism, conflicts of interest and/or political cronyism," Grossman said. "I did not know any of the people who filled those roles." - Grossman said his staff is working to "improve the delivery of services" to clients served by the county's Department of Human Services, which encompasses the offices of Mental Health & Mental Retardation, Children and Youth, and Drug & Alcohol.

The department is the county's largest.

Grossman said he wants to see more treatment related to those offices handled by third-party residential treatment centers in the Erie area, instead of out-of-town facilities.

"Erie County tax dollars are involved. I want to see the money stay in Erie County," Grossman said.

- Efforts are working to collect more than $300,000 in delinquent county hotel taxes from local businesses late in paying the tax, Grossman said. His administration has taken legal action against some of the hotels and motels, and has discussed criminal charges with Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri.

- County Council, at Grossman's request, agreed to set aside up to $70,000 for hiring outside legal help in upcoming labor contracts with unions representing more than 700 county workers. The county has about 1,100 employees overall.

The last time that county government negotiated contracts with its union workers -- in late 2007, under Mark DiVecchio's administration -- the wage packages provided average pay increases of 22.38 percent over four years.

Grossman has said repeatedly that keeping employee costs under control is key for the county, and that he wants to work amicably with the unions to accomplish that.

Carolyn Beck is vice president of Local 2666 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the county's largest union, representing about 350 county workers.

Beck said Grossman's administration has shown a willingness to work with unions on various "labor-management issues," such as outstanding grievances. Beck said she hopes that bodes well for the upcoming contract talks.

"We may not agree on everything," Beck said, "but at least there's movement when it comes to closure on a lot of issues we've had." Grossman said he enjoys his new job and realizes there are many tough decisions ahead.

But as he sees it, "You can't take a job like this getting up every day worrying whether you're making friends. ... I have a job to do." KEVIN FLOWERS can be reached at 870-1693 or by e-mail.

To see more of the Erie Times-News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2010, Erie Times-News, Pa. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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