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The new year will get off to an uneasy start for members of the Erie and Niagara Counties Regional Planning Board as Niagara County considers pulling out of the planning panel.

Niagara County's concerns about sticking with the 25-year-old planning partnership come in the wake of a move by Erie County to eliminate its share of 1991 funding. Since the bi-county planning board and its staff were established, Erie County had funded 76 percent of the staff costs, with Niagara County picking up the balance.

Elimination of nearly $182,000 in Erie County funds for 1991 has forced the layoff of the board's nine staffers as of last week and left Niagara County officials wondering whether the board has any purpose.

Niagara County Legislator Steven Brown said Sunday that question still hasn't been answered.

"We wanted to keep the staff and continue the work. We were never in favor of dismantling things, so we have a lot of questions to get answered," he said.

Brown said it remains unclear how joint planning goals will be developed and achieved without an independent staff of planners.

"The idea behind the board in the first place was to approach things from a regional perspective. I just don't see how we'll continue to do that if the people carrying out our agenda are county employees," he said.

As County Executive Gorski proposed the dismantling of the regional board, he simultaneously added two planning slots in Erie County's Department of Environment and Planning. To date, Niagara County has made no moves to bring planners in-house.

When the idea of cutting off funding was first floated by Erie County officials, many of the Planning Board's 21 members expressed outrage at the notion and threatened to resign.

Although the terms of all 11 Erie County representatives and many of Niagara County's 10 members expire at midnight tonight, there will apparently be no full-scale rush to the door. All the members are expected to retain their posts, at least for the next several weeks, so the future of the board can be decided.

Erie County members have expressed individual displeasure with the elimination of staff, but Gorski has vowed to replace any of his appointees with new members if they chose not to be reappointed.

Richard M. Tobe, Erie County commissioner of environment and planning, said Sunday that efforts are under way to keep the board alive. He said he always envisioned that the board would continue, despite the elimination of staff.

"There are many local boards without direct staff that make critical decisions. A good example is the Cultural Resources Advisory Board," Tobe said.

"The concept of regional planning is not dead. I'd hope the Niagara County Legislature will decide to stick with us," he added.

Tobe has drafted a 12-page report for Planning Board and county officials to review, outlining how the regional planning goal can still be met. He has also drafted some alternative plans, in case Niagara County opts out of joint planning.

The list includes: Erie County joining forces with another neighboring county for planning purposes; forming an Erie County-only planning body, or doing away with the board.

"At this point we're hoping Niagara and Erie counties will continue their planning relationship. I'm optimistic that can happen," Tobe said.

As officials from both counties sort out their options, the Erie County comptroller's office is wrapping up its audit of the board's books and financial practices.

That review, which is expected to be completed in early January, has already predicted a potential deficit of $130,000 as the board closes its books for 1990.

Planning Board officials have said that much of that red ink can be attributed to the cost of closing down its staff operations.

Auditors also have found that minutes of board meetings on the fees to be paid to former consultant Gary J. Hayes have been changed.

Spencer Scolfield, the board's acting director, said the changed minutes dealt with contract fees for Hayes, who shared offices with the board's staff.

Hayes and David J. Evans, Scolfield's predecessor, were fired in September after the board learned that Hayes had been convicted in 1989 of stealing $24,000 from automatic cash machines in Niagara County.

Over the last 25 years the board and its staff have provided a variety of regional planning functions, including water quality studies, transportation planning, intergovernmental reviews and population projections.

The board also operates a regional Geographic Information System, which utilizes computerized mapping and automation.

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