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COUNTY LOOKING TO REOPEN PARKS

Despite the financial crisis, Erie County officials are pursuing ideas to open county-owned parks this year, and lawmakers are likely to vote Thursday to reopen the Elma Meadows and Grover Cleveland golf courses.

Lawmakers on Monday thanked the Elma Town Board profusely for offering to take Elma Meadows for $1 and operate it for all county residents without raising fees. But legislators tabled the offer, saying they weren't willing to give away a multimillion-dollar asset.

Besides, legislators said, they had found ways to economize, mainly with union concessions, so both Elma Meadows and Amherst's Grover Cleveland can open with just one higher charge -- $2 more to rent a cart. And the crew at Elma Meadows can also maintain the adjacent park beloved by Elma residents.

With fewer workers and less money spent on supplies, the golf courses can become self-supporting, said Legislator Timothy M. Wroblewski, D-West Seneca, who helped find common ground with the blue-collar union representing the maintenance force.

"We came to the table," said John Orlando, president of Local 1095, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "There's been some concessions made, mainly to get our people back to work."

County Executive Joel A. Giambra had proposed a series of higher fees to make the courses self-supporting, but he and some legislators predict there aren't 10 lawmakers willing to provide the two-thirds majority needed to raise so many rates.

The Elma Town Board told the Legislature's Energy and Environment Committee that it could maintain the course and the park, 208 acres in the heart of the town, for all of Erie County. Councilman Bill Scirocco said town crews could do an even better job than county crews have done.

The offer ran into legal concerns over whether the State Legislature would need to sign off and whether only Local 1095 has the contractual right to provide the workers caring for Elma Meadows. Answers to those questions wouldn't be found in a matter of days, the time remaining before caretakers must get onto the course.

"What I'm interested in hearing is what gets it done right now," said Republican Minority Leader Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-East Amherst.

Committee Chairman Raymond K. Dusza, D-Cheektowaga, said Elma's offer might be pursued in the future, but right now there isn't time.

Parks Commissioner Angelo Sedita later said parks officials are seeking a way to reopen all county-owned parks outside Buffalo through the fees they generate for campsites, lodge rentals and special events, for example. He said some "very preliminary ideas" are being discussed.

Meanwhile, legislators showed little sign Monday that they will cut another $14 million this year to bring the budget back into a mathematical balance. County Comptroller Nancy A. Naples and Budget Director Joseph Passafiume are in rare agreement that $14 million from reserves, which lawmakers had expected to spend in 2005, must help close 2004's deficit.

Last year's deficit is estimated at $106 million, three times the initial forecast. Outside auditors are working on the final number.

Legislator Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, said lawmakers should wait until they know the deficit's actual size. Passafiume warned, however, that the longer lawmakers wait, the fewer options they'll have for saving money.

County Clerk David J. Swarts renewed his request to reopen a downtown auto bureau, after the Legislature's budget cuts forced him to close three of four facilities. He left open only the bureau in Depew, but customers must wait for hours, he said, and many are taking their business to neighboring counties.

He said he could bring in several hundred thousand dollars if he can hire 15 more workers and restore a downtown office.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is a no-brainer," he told the Finance and Management Committee, which did not act on his request. "

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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