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Your stories: John Mills settles into the top chair at Erie County Legislature

A COMFORTABLE SEAT — John Mills is right at home as chairman of the Erie County Legislature, where he was recently instated.

SPRINGVILLE — When Republicans won a majority of seats in the Erie County Legislature, something they had not done in 26 years, they turned to John Mills to chair the Legislature where he had served as Minority Leader over three terms.

One month into the job, Mills, 67, said he is enjoying his role as the second most powerful person in the county after the county executive and added that he believes the position will prove positive for the southern county towns and villages he represents, as well as the entire county.

“The key is leadership traits. I’m a good salesman,” Mills said, of why he was tapped for the chair. “After 38 years in business, you have to like people and get along with them. I’ve built relationships and I get along on both sides of the aisle.”

For Mills, his business experience serves him well, while conducting the government agenda. “I’m always urging people in the private sector to get involved,” he said. “We need less career politicians.”

His business, J. Mills Distributing Company, offers a parallel view of his political vision. Together with his wife Barbara, he took a chance and responded to a solicitation for a Buffalo distributor from a Chicago firm. “We were definitely undercapitalized, when we began,” said Mills, who remembers investing $500 in 1977 to begin the firm with a single truck.

Today, his company is a multi-million dollar business, distributing thousands of food and food-related products across Western and Central New York, as well as Northern Pennsylvania.

He first shared space at the current Orchard Park location with the family machinery firm. When the business later moved to bigger lodgings, Mills’ company took over the entire site. Today, the distribution center is a sprawling complex of connected additions. Mills pointed out the newest addition, which uses state-of-the-art energy efficiency.

“Not only did I gain the extra space I needed, but the result was an almost $1,000 reduction in my electric bill, each month,” he said.

Mills first got involved in politics through his native town of Orchard Park, as a member of the Public Safety Committee and then the Zoning Board of Appeals. That experience led him to toss his hat into elected office, and he ended up serving as a councilman for six, four-year terms.

He sought the county Legislative seat in 2005 and won that and the subsequent 2007 election. More recently, he ran unopposed in both the 2009 and 2011 elections. With the term beginning in 2008, Mills’ Republican colleagues selected him as minority leader, a post he continued to hold until his recent elevation to the Legislature’s chair.

He sits as chair of the South Towns Sewage Treatment Agency, or what he referred to as, “the poster child for how government should work.” Although it is a part of the county’s sewer authority, the agency’s separate board has done things differently. It sets aside funds for regular, preventative maintenance. “We don’t have that in the county,” Mills says, “We use crisis management. Patronage in county agencies has been a big problem, for years.”

He sees a need to bring back the thousands of people who have left the area. “In 1977 [Erie County] had 1.3 million people. Since then, we have lost 400,000. We need to bring these people back. We have the resources; we have hydropower, [but we also have] old infrastructure, poor politics and a high state tax rate.”

With a diminished population, Mills would like to see more collaboration between levels of government to become more efficient. He cited two recent projects he was involved with as proof that it can work.

When storms eroded a road and destroyed a dam in Springville, a lack of funding led to a proposal to dead-end the affected road.

“I managed to bring the county, Springville and the federal government together. Not only was the road rebuilt, but the dam was replaced, as well. That project also created a new conservation area downstream,” Mills said. The Legislator said that his seat on the Soil and Water Conservation Board enabled him to put all the pieces in place for that project. “That project highlights how I like to work,” he said.

A current project of Mills’ is to join Erie with Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties in seeking funds for watershed projects.

“It started with the flooding in Gowanda in 2009,” he said. “Not only was it a problem there, but the supervisor of Brant, Leonard Pero, complained to me about appliances from Gowanda ending up on his beaches.”

At a watershed symposium at Seneca Lake, Mills discovered that the three Western New York counties were the only ones not receiving any funds for water projects.

After some research, Mills found the answer. “The Erie County watershed falls under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, headquartered in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Chautauqua and Cattaraugus are governed by the Soil and Water Conservation department, based in Ohio. You know they do not want to send their money outside of their own areas.”

With the three counties now cooperating, Mills believes funding for local projects will soon be available.

One of Mills’ most visible events are the hot dog roasts he holds, to raise money for every branch library in his sprawling district. Over the years, that program has raised more than $10,000. While a booster of the county’s libraries, Mills added that he is not a fan of current proposals to set up a separate library district that would have taxing ability.

“We already have too many forms of government, such as authorities and fire districts; we don’t need another taxing district,” said Mills. “I think if we work hard, we can create something in the county charter to protect the finances of the library system.”

Mills said he sees change in the county’s operations as essential, as well. All committee meetings are now held on Thursdays, the same as Legislature meetings.

“No one has an excuse to miss them now, with them always on Thursday,” Mills says. “It allows private sector legislators to plan their schedules and attend,” he added.

Those are not the only changes Mills is pushing. He and his Republican confreres have given up having district offices. “That alone has saved $100,000 in rental costs.” he said, adding, “I don’t think you need a district office. You need to pack your bag in the trunk and visit the town and village halls.”

And, with the largest geographic legislative district in the county, Mills estimates driving about 5,000 miles per year, to visit those sites.

He promises more changes as well, especially in monitoring the county executive’s budget proposals. “I want to reduce spending systematically through fine-tuning,” Mills said. “We have three less people on the legislative staff from last year. A lot of expenditures are not necessary or could be done for less expense.”

The chair reported that he has been working well with County Executive Mark Poloncarz, but disagreements have arisen.

While he believes marketing the area, especially to Canadians is important, he is not keen on Poloncarz’s plans for a Toronto office to tout the county. “We already have the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to do that. I think another office would be redundant,” Mills said.

He also expressed discomfort in the Poloncarz’s decision to defer $6.5 million in pension costs into a “pay-as-you go” system, saying, “That could create a big hole in next year’s budget, if not paid this year. If you’ve got the money to pay, you don’t put it on your credit card.”

Ultimately, Mills sees his Legislative chair as a boon to the constituents who have elected him. In his post, he makes committee appointments and sets agendas. He said he believes it has been too long since needs in the southern third of the county have been fully addressed. “It’s a home run for the Southtowns to have a chairman,” he said. “We can now put places like Springville, Eden and Concord on the map.

“It hasn’t always been easy, but I enjoy what I’m doing,” Mills concluded. “And as to the success of his planned reforms he thinks, “I might not be the brightest guy, but I’ve got common sense.”

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