The candidates for Erie County Executive again met face to face on campaign issues, this time in front of hundreds of students inside St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute in Kenmore, which hosted its 31st annual debate.
A panel of students from the school's Advanced Placement Government program prepared and asked questions on a wide variety of topics, including the candidates' own salaries as public officials, Common Core and teacher evaluations based on testing, poverty in the county, whether tax dollars should support a new Buffalo Bills stadium if the team desires a new venue, gun control, the county's previous issues with its Child Protective Services and whether the NFTA's Metro Rail should expand into the suburbs.
"I thought they were very composed up there," said senior Matthew Berardi, one of the students on the panel. "Mr. Poloncarz and Mr. Walter both handled themselves well. We asked them pretty tough questions, and they seemed to respond to them pretty well."
Walter, who delivered the first remarks, opened by touting his 'fair share' tax plan, which he says will cut property taxes while distributing revenues more fairly throughout the county.
"If we target the poorest regions in our community, eliminate sales tax, freeze property taxes, and create a blanket policy for ECIDA (Erie County Industrial Development Agency) to approve projects in those areas, we can drive private sector investment into the most struggling parts of our community that haven't seen any kind of investment in decades," Walter said.
Poloncarz, meanwhile, pointed to a record that includes a drop in the county's unemployment rate and a rising credit that has turned the county's bond rating from "near junk" to top ratings on Wall Street.
"Four years ago when I ran, I made some promises to the people of Erie County," Poloncarz said. "I promised the people of Erie County that we'd work together to grow our economy, and we have.
Among the local issues was poverty. Poloncarz explained his initiatives to tackle the problem. Walter, in response, suggested those initiatives only serve to make people more comfortable in poverty, while his fair share tax plan would stimulate the job growth that could actually help people emerge from poverty.
Regarding the prospect of a new Buffalo Bills stadium, Walter said taxpayers should not be called upon to support it. He estimates a proposed downtown stadium at $2 billion, including the cost of infrastructure reconstruction and management of a facility that would be used "eight Sundays a year."
Poloncarz acknowledged that the state and county currently serve as partners in the recently renovated Ralph Wilson Stadium and said Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula have expressed their satisfaction in the facility. But he added that it's the National Football League who has expressed a desire to see the Bills build a new home. And if that conversation were to start? Poloncarz would keep that chatter private.
"If the Pegulas want to have that conversation, it's a conversation I'm willing to entertain. But I'm not going to lay out our position now and then compromise our discussions later," Poloncarz said.
The candidates took opposing sides on several issues, including the SAFE Act. Poloncarz supports it, Walter opposes it. They also took opposing positions on the issue of term limits. Walter supports them.
"I think that we've seen over the years that as people serve in a certain position for a really long time, they start to accumulate more and more power, owe more and more favors to individuals," Walter said. "For example, the county executive criticized my opponent four years ago for taking thousands and thousands of dollars from the Harris Beach Law Firm, yet he's turned around and taken the exact same amount from the Harris Beach Law Firm. A $10,000 donation, the last check, because they do work for the ECIDA, that he controls."
Poloncarz opposes term limits and says voters have the power to determine when it's time to change an elected official. He also took exception to Walter's comment, and said that he returned an even larger contribution - $25,000 from a law firm - at a time his office was looking to hire attorneys.
"I may be the first and only elected official in county history, and for that matter state and local history, who returned a substantial donation because I did not want to make it appear that I was up for sale," Poloncarz said. "I'm not up for sale. People are supporting my candidacy. I will not deny that. We've received hundreds and hundreds of donations from average citizens. But don't ever say that my administration is up for sale."
There were a couple of moments when responses by the candidates drew groans from the audience. Poloncarz got his when he answered a question about which candidate he would support in next year's presidential election. His answer was Hillary Clinton.
Walter drew groans, meanwhile, while criticizing Poloncarz for "taking too much credit" for the response to last year's massive November snowstorm.
Since hosting its first political debate more than three decades ago, St. Joe's is now looked upon by many candidates as a must-stop destination on their campaign trail, say organizers.
"I know that they like the audience. They're probably not going to debate in front of this many people anywhere else," said St. Joe's AP Government teacher and debate moderator Ted Lina. "And they know that the questions are going to be on point, and that the students are going to be attentive and respectful of each candidate, as they were here this morning."
While some on the panel and in the audience are not yet old enough to vote, Berardi noted that many will be ready for their first election next year, when the White House is at stake.
"We have AP Government and regular Government classes for all seniors, so they're very involved with politics at this level," Berardi said. "They know the candidates for president and are very aware of the issues."
Last year's debate was between Congressional incumbent Brian Higgins, who was later re-elected, and his challenger Kathy Weppner.