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PRESSURE ON THE WATER SYSTEM
COUNTY UTILITY AGENCY'S FINANCIAL DEADLINE IS A CHALLENGE CITY LAWMAKERS MUST MEET

Common Council members should not allow time to run out on an important option that could merge city water service with the Erie County Water Authority. Intransigent Council members may end up blowing this deal, despite warnings that the clock is ticking.

The county Water Authority must obtain favorable state financing allowing it to assume the city system's existing debt of $125 million. The money may dry up if the Council does not approve the plan by mid-December and put it before the voters in a referendum early this winter.

In addition to assuming nearly $125 million in debt, sale of the city water system to the larger county network would also give the city $31.5 million over six years. The county agency also would commit to making $15 million in annual repairs. The control board overseeing city finances has supported the sale, saying it will improve operations, cut costs and speed up repairs on an aging water system.

Nevertheless, some Council members question the deal. One major argument is that the cash payments to the city would end after six years, while the city water system now makes an annual contribution to the city's general coffers. The president of the blue-collar union representing most city water employees has estimated that contribution -- in effect, a hidden "tax" on city water consumers for unrelated city services -- at more than $4 million a year.

The other main argument involves jobs. City politicians always have been reluctant to sign off on job cuts. The Water Authority apparently plans to eliminate more than half of the existing 125 city jobs at the agency, and Buffalo lawmakers have shown a disturbing tendency to turn a blind eye to the city's financial crisis when it comes to protecting jobs.

That crisis is real. There is no other way to turn the economic fortunes of the Buffalo Niagara region than making needed changes. Municipal job protection is not the paramount obligation of lawmakers, and city jobs would be threatened even more by city financial ruin than they are now by restructuring.

The Council has the final say about whether the city's water system merges with the county's. It must decide quickly. The city water system is an aging entity that requires investment to maintain efficiency for the system and service for its customers. There is an opportunity for state financial help in making this deal, but the window is closing.