Interview: Chris Jacobs

Chris Jacobs is that rare Republican who doesn’t hesitate to label himself a moderate or express his concern about his party’s shift to the far right.

He took office as Erie County Clerk in January and is one of only two Republicans holding countywide office. (Sheriff Tim Howard is the other). Jacobs previously served 7 1/2 years on the Buffalo Board of Education. Other public service includes a stint as State Secretary of State under George Pataki during his last year as  governor.

Jacobs is a developer by trade and his Avalon Development is active in the city. He earned an undergraduate degree in history from Boston College, a masters in business administration from American University and a law degree from the University at Buffalo. After graduating from American, he worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under then Secretary Jack Kemp.  

After his return to Buffalo, Jacobs co-founded the BISON Scholarship Fund, which raises money to underwrite the tuition of  low- and moderate-income students to attend private or parochial schools. He later co-founded the South Buffalo Charter School.

Jacobs has a couple of noteworthy family connections. His uncle is Jeremy Jacobs, chairman and CEO of Delaware North Companies, and regarded as one of Western New York’s wealthiest and powerfiul figures. His brother Luke is married to the daughter of Carl Paladino.

Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney interviewed Jacobs Sept. 17. A 4 minute 17 second feature with interview highlights appears above. The full 21-minute interview is posted deeper in the transcript below, which has been edited lightly for clarity.


Heaney: Let’s talk first about politics. You are kind of a rare bird these days. You’re a self-proclaimed moderate Republican. You’ve got some concerns about the state of the party both locally and nationally and let me set it up a little bit. We’re just coming off some pretty ugly primaries locally. I think the party is probably in some ways more divided than it’s been in a while. Nationally we’ve come through a pretty challenging presidential primary, as well. What are your concerns about the direction of the party, both locally and nationally?

Jacobs: I think that as you said being a moderate Republican, I think what I worry about – and this hasn’t been just this year, it’s been a trend – is the pull from the extremes on probably both parties.

You see this year, of course, there was not a Democratic primary for president. There was for the Republicans, which we saw ended up pulling everybody to the right. And I think that that seems to be more of a trend and seems to be more polarized, and I think it seems to be that generally what happens is those issues that are discussed – not that they’re not important – but certain issues, such as social issues, take an overwhelming precedence over other issues, which I think the majority of people want to hear more discussed and want to hear more focus on. And for instance now you see Mitt Romney going back to talk about economics. He ignored that for a while to placate the elements of the party that were very involved, hyper-involved, in the primaries.

So I think that the concern I have is that continuing trend – and it’s on both sides, but you’re asking me about my party – is causing polarization of the party, turn off of the electorate. It’s kind of a bit of a self-fulfilling thing because more people if you talk about the nastiness of the primaries happen on both sides this year. That tends to turn off the general public to be involved with politics at all, not even voting. And what happens is there’s a smaller amount of people involved in elections and it tends to cause this issue of going outwardly more extreme.

I think there’s a real concern – maybe over time it all changes and you see the burgeoning third rail of the independent voter, which is getting to be more and more important. Maybe that’s where you go, which may not be all that bad in my mind.

When I ran for school board the one thing that I did enjoy was there was not a label. When I went to door to door as a school board member, people couldn’t say, “What’s your party?” and then just have a stereotype. They’d have to ask you issues. So that’s an upside, but I do, as far as the question on the party, get concerned about where things are going. The Republicans – in terms of New York State – our vote is really meaningless.

Heaney: Let’s talk locally because a year ago the party controlled the county executive’s office. The party controlled the County Legislature. They’ve lost both. Some of the biggest names in the party came under pretty strong attack by right wing Republicans this time around in the primaries. What does the Republican Party need to do in Erie County and Niagara County to pull itself together?

Jacobs: I think there’s a long road. I think that we have to broaden the issues we talk about. We have to go after constituencies and the inner city and the minority communities to talk about issues. That’s going to take a long time to earn trust there, but I think it can be done. But I think it’s going to take time because it’s taken time to where we’re at right now.

What I worry about – and this hasn’t been just this year, it’s been a trend – is the pull from the extremes on probably both parties.

Heaney: Who impresses you locally?

Jacobs: I would say right now in the party side – I think what I’ve seen of the leadership on local elected people, such as Barry Weinstein in Amherst or Mary Cook in Grand Island. People who are running governments and trying to run them effectively, try to provide those services that most residents want, but be responsible and say, “We have to find ways to pay for them.”

Heaney: So you’re talking pragmatic?

Jacobs: Pragmatic governments, yeah.

Heaney: Let’s talk about a couple races coming up in November. Handicap the race for county comptroller.

 Jacobs: I know Stefan Mychajliw from when he worked for the School Board and I’ve gotten to know Dave Shenk, the current comptroller. I like them both. The trend lines as far as it being a presidential election year, I think anyone can say there’s an inherent advantage to a Democrat and incumbent and Dave Schenk.

I would say I believe Stefan will win that race. I think he’s a great candidate. I think he’s very well-known. He’s a quick study and I think his experience as a journalist and especially an investigative journalist – going after and investigating issues and not taking ‘no’ for an answer and digging deep – I think those are some of the things you need to do as a good comptroller, and be willing to do that and be willing to have people be upset with you sometimes.

Heaney: Kathy Hochul, Chris Collins.

Jacobs: I think it’d be a little bit of the opposite. The trend lines would be favoring a Republican. It’s a Republican district – quite Republican. But I think if anybody can do it, Kathy Hochul could. She’s just a stellar politician and an incumbent. So I think it’s going to be very close. I don’t live in that district so I don’t feel in tune with what’s going on, but I think it’s going to be extremely close and there’s a long way to go from now til then for me to predict, and I’m not an expert in those sort of things.

Heaney: You mentioned Hochul being a good politician. The knock against Chris Collins has been that he is not particularly a good politician. The whole likeability factor and lack thereof, which I think conventional wisdom holds that cost him dearly in the county executive race last fall. Do you see the likeability factor being much of an issue in that race?

Jacobs: I think I’d heard Tom Reynolds, who is kind of an expert on these sort of things  saying if it comes down to a likeability contest, that’s probably where Kathy Hochul would want it to go. But are the pocket book issues going to be predominant because of where we are right now? It’s really just beginning and I think that the next month and a half will tell.

Maybe over time it all changes and you see the burgeoning third rail of the independent voter, which is getting to be more and more important. Maybe that’s where you go, which may not be all that bad in my mind.

Heaney: You’re a countywide elected official, Mark Poloncarz is a countywide elected official. You’ve both been in office about nine months. Give me a quick critique of the job he’s done so far. In particular, have you seen any significant stumbles? And I’ll mention a couple things. The hiring of his brother by the Erie County Water Authority, while it’s not a huge issue in terms of public policy impact, it seems to have resonated with the public. And the other one is the delay in getting a Bills lease done at a time where Poloncarz had gotten ahead of it earlier in the year in saying, he thought he’d have a deal in place by the start of training camp and we’re now heading into week three of the season and there’s really nothing on the horizon.

Jacobs: I think on the Bills, the problem with being out there saying, “We’re going to get this done,” is the recognition that it’s not unilaterally under your control. And our governor is going to be the main deal maker on that one, so elevating expectations, getting yourself out there, you live and learn but you don’t want to do that. And it also puts you at a vulnerability negotiating-stance-wise.

I had an occasion when I was working at the county years ago of sitting in some meetings with Adelphia, and what they kept coming back to people – I was just listening – was, “Look, your elected officials have already had a press conference. We’ll hang on as one. They’re the ones who are going to look like fools.”

So when you do that – not that Mark did that – my point is when you make promises and hang things out there, you’ve got to remember it’s a negotiation and you want to come into it in as good as position as possible. And we have the end goal of keeping the Bills, but you have to understand your role.

The other issue, in terms of when you mentioned the Water Authority, and it goes a little on what I mentioned about turning people off to government and politics. I’m not talking on the specific issue of Poloncarz’s brother, but just those issues. There was another issue on the other side of somebody turn off people to government – their belief that people are in it for themselves, that they’re self-serving, that’s there’s abuses. That again turns people off to wanting to be engaged at all and wanting to trust their government. I think that the Water Authority – and this comes up so frequently – and I think the elected officials in there believe it’ll come up and go back away, come up and go back away, and they’ll keep doing it.

 I think the structure of (the Water Authority) is inherently flawed politically.

11:25 Heaney: Do you have any strong opinions about what ought to happen with the Water Authority?

11:28 Jacobs: What I would say is I would form a blue ribbon commission to look at the Water Authority, its structure, what other places do around the country. Is there a model that we can do that is less prone to politics? And it is clearly prone to politics, and I think we have to look at every level of government like that – something that’s clearly come up time and time again. I think if you did a search in the newspapers, every year and a half something comes up like this. So I think the structure of that is inherently flawed politically and I think it’s time to really look at that.

Heaney: It’s almost like they have no shame down there. One more political question: What are your political aspirations? Clearly nobody grows up in America aspiring to be the county clerk. It’s a means to an end. What are your aspirations?

 Jacobs: I’ve always had the view of having a real interest in public service. I view it as an honor. For instance, even though the School Board was a part-time job that paid $5,000 a year, I found it an honor to be involved and I thought it was a very important thing to be involved in. But I’ve always viewed, too – I’m very happy in the private sector. I had a development company that I loved. This came up out of the blue – nobody thought Kathy Hochul would win her race – and there was a special election for this position. I had interacted with the office quite a bit because the real estate side of the clerk’s office. And I did think there was things that needed to be changed there. So I felt I could go in there and make a change.

 There may be some opportunities for major businesses to reconsider coming back downtown,

Heaney: You live in the city. There’s the mayor’s office. You’re one of only two countywide Republicans who are elected. The other one is the sheriff and I doubt he’s running for higher office. County executive is another opportunity. You’ve ran for state Senate before. Let me rephrase the question: Do you expect at some point to run for higher office?

Jacobs: I wouldn’t be surprised if I did. I also wouldn’t be surprised if you found that Chris Jacobs went back to the private sector.

Heaney: Let’s talk a little bit about what you’re doing now in the clerk’s office. You stepped into a situation where there was a huge backlog. What I’d like you to do is kind of briefly explain to us the problems you encountered, how you fixed them, and how much it cost.

Jacobs: When we came into the clerk’s office I had heard ,when I was running, that there were some issues from attorneys. The wait times to record your deed and mortgage were double, triple, quadruple what people had in the past, and you know lawyers charge by the hour, and so it impacts people. When I came in, what we discovered was there was a couple rooms filled with documents, literally bins this high of documents that had not been opened, mail that had come in from deeds, mortgage assignments. Other legal documents had not been opened yet, and then the other two rooms that were filled even higher of boxes were original documents, deeds, mortgages and so forth that we sent back to the customer when we’re finished with our recording process. The documents that had been received in the mail that had not been opened – we had documents as old as six months that had not been opened yet.

Heaney: The typical backlog had been what, when things were working well?

Jacobs: A week.

Heaney: So it had gone from a week to as much as six months.

Jacobs: The mail, a week. Returning original documents, two months, and it was 18 months when I came in.

Heaney: The root of the problem, was it mismanagement? Was it lack of manpower? Was it poor technology?

Jacobs: My assessment of the situation was there were changes that were made to the process. And on paper it probably made sense. But as you know in business, moving something to paper to implementation is a critical transition. And when it was made to implementation it was determined that it was not working. It did not work and broke the existing process.

As opposed to going back to the old way or tinkering with it to try to get it to work, the broken process was perpetuated for nearly a year and that was causing this backlog.

Now there’s other mitigating things that came in. HSBC mortgages were being assigned because HSBC is divesting from this area. But there’s always things that come in that office with changes in the market place. Interest rates come down and you refinance. But usually the office was able to make adjustments to do adjust and adapt and stay current. But what happened that there was a change in the process, it didn’t work, and it broke the process.

Heaney: Are you caught up now?

Jacobs: We are very close to being caught up now.

Heaney: What’s been the cost, the out-of-pocket expense?

Jacobs: We have probably about $8,000 to $10,000 in overtime. We’ve had to pay for overtime in particular to get the mail because the mail have checks in it. So we had to get those checks deposited. So we spent let’s say $8,000 in overtime over the last six months. We deposited $3 million in uncashed checks. So those are checks that are earning interest in different levels of government, whether it’s Erie County, NFTA, State of New York, or a transfer tax that goes back to our local governments. All that now is where it should be.

But the thing I was really excited about was in identification of this problem, what we did was we pulled together a task force. We call it the Reengineering Task Force. We pulled together employees who worked at the cashier desk, who had the best ideas for what needed to happen. We brought constituencies to work with the office like title folks, real estate lawyers, and then M&T Bank actually loaned an executive who is an expert in organizational change. And we did a thorough analysis breaking down the system from the first step to the last step – broke it down, analyzed the best way to go. And the product of this was really a business plan for reforming the office with about 28 steps that we could do which would improve the process and improve the working environment for the employees.

Heaney: Where you are right now, can you operate the clerk’s office at the current staffing levels or do you need more bodies? And secondly, what’s the state of technology?  Do you have the technology to make things work?

Jacobs: Our analysis showed that optimal employment level would be two employees in our division.

Heaney: Out of how many?

Jacobs: Two from the net division is probably about 40 employees.

Heaney: Alright, so it’s small.

Jacobs: It’s small.

 I also wouldn’t be surprised if you found that Chris Jacobs went back to the private sector.

Heaney: Do you expect to ask for those staffing increases?

Jacobs: We did ask for that. We asked for that in the budget. And keep in mind, our staff in that division is down about 10 employees from the budget crisis, so we are down significantly.

Now, your question on technology – huge opportunity we have. We are very archaic in this area, how we do real estate closings. Most places you don’t come down to County Hall to do real estate closings. We still do that. Within the next year we will be implementing electronic recording, so you will not have to come down to our office anymore. You can do it at your lawyer’s office and everything can be electronic. And when that happens, that is going to be dramatic change in terms of the public using our offices. You’re welcome to come down anytime you want, but you don’t have to.

But also, the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of documents we get in the mail everyday – for instance the 20,000 mortgage assignments that came in from HSBC Bank were all on paper that we had to process. If they were doing that in another state, it would have been all electronic. So next time that happens, my hope is that within the next year that will be done electronically and no staff person will have to touch those papers. Huge difference.

Heaney: One last question because we’re running out of time. Put on your developer’s hat for a minute. Rocco Termini was on a couple weeks ago. He talked about improving downtown environment for real estate developers. He threw out an idea. I’d like to get your feedback.  If HSBC leaves and those two towers go largely dark, he thinks bankruptcy. He thinks lower rents there that empty out the B and C office buildings. He doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad outcome because he thinks it will lead to an exciting redevelopment of a lot of older buildings. Do you think that would be a good outcome or how difficult would it be to get there?

Jacobs: I respect Rocco’s hootspa for wanting to do a lot more conversions of projects. He does great work.

Heaney: How rocky of a road would that be?

Jacobs: It would be a rocky transition in the sense of buildings in distress for multiple years. He’s basically saying the scenario where HSBC would become vacant, go bankrupt. Rents would come dramatically down. They would suck up tenancies from many of the B buildings in downtown. Those buildings would go dark, eventually go bankrupt, eventually go transition. You’re talking about a long transition.

I would like to see buildings like he’s talking about, let’s say the Main-Seneca building, old Gold Dome converted into residential. But I think there’s other ways it can be done – a little less painful.

I will say I think an opportunity for HSBC Center is there is a lot of buildings out in the suburbs who are burning off their PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes), and their rents will come up dramatically. There may be some opportunities for major businesses to reconsider coming back downtown, so I think it’ll work its way out but it’s something we really need to be focused on.