A proposed Erie County takeover of Buffalo's water system faces an uphill struggle after Common Council leaders said Wednesday there's not enough support to proceed with a plan to put the issue before voters early next year.
Some lawmakers said they're still not convinced selling the city system to the Erie County Water Authority will improve operations and cut costs. They're also concerned about the likelihood that senior citizen discounts would be phased out after several years and that 65 of Buffalo's 125 water workers would lose their jobs.
Still others think the city, with the help of its unions, can make changes of its own to improve water system performance.
Following a two-hour strategy session that involved eight of the city's nine lawmakers, Majority Leader Marc A. Coppola and Council President David A. Franczyk said they're doubtful the Council will be able to comply with a December deadline for approving the plan. Merger advocates have warned that further delays would jeopardize state financing that is essential to making the deal happen.
"I don't think we have the votes to do this in December," said Coppola, adding that he can't support the deal as it's currently structured.
"This could be one of the biggest decisions made in the last 25 years for the City of Buffalo," said Coppola. "We didn't set this timetable, and we haven't vetted all the issues."
City Finance Commissioner James B. Milroy told the Water Board on Wednesday he doesn't think there are enough Council votes to proceed with the deal. Milroy, who opposed an earlier water system merger, has become an ardent supporter of a revised plan. He claims it would deliver new economies of scale, more capital repairs and rate increases of 34 percent over 10 years, versus increases of at least 56 percent if the city continues to run the system. Under the terms, the county Water Authority would assume about $125 million in existing debt, give the city $31.5 million over six years and commit to making $15 million in annual repairs.
"I've come full circle on this," Milroy told Council members. "I think we have to do it."
Six of nine Council members would have to authorize the sale of a city asset. Council leaders said lining up even five votes to trigger a referendum on the issue would be a heavy lift at this point. City Public Works Commissioner Joseph N. Giambra, who also supports the sale, warned lawmakers that unless they act soon, the key mechanism for financing the sale will probably no longer be an option. He said cuts in federal funding are expected to have negative consequences for a state agency that provides low-interest loans to help spur municipal mergers.
In addition to the Council and city voters, the State Legislature and city unions would also have to approve the sale.
Niagara Council Member Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr. said he's undecided but has concerns about the impact of planned cuts.
"They still think they can get the job done by cutting half the work force in half, and I really have a problem with that," said Bonifacio.
The reductions would come from eliminating duplication in some divisions, said Milroy, who said he's disappointed that the Council apparently won't vote on the issue any time soon.
But University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell said she still thinks it's conceivable that lingering concerns could be resolved within a few weeks.