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LEGISLATURE PLANS TO OPEN TWO COUNTY GOLF COURSES

Erie County will open its two golf courses, county lawmakers decided Thursday.

The Legislature also passed a measure requiring proposed county budgets be unveiled by Oct. 15 every year, before Election Day. With all 15 Legislature seats up for grabs this year, voters can ask challengers and incumbents whether they'll support the property tax increase roundly predicted as likely for 2006.

Lawmakers Thursday raised the fee to rent a golf cart from $20 to $22. The extra income, plus union concessions and a smaller budget for supplies, should let Grover Cleveland and Elma Meadows open as self-supporting courses, legislators said. Workers also will care for the small park next to the Elma Meadows course.

"This is 100 percent budget neutral," said Legislator Timothy M. Wroblewski, D-West Seneca, who helped craft the $1.2 million plan and found common ground with the union for blue-collar workers.

"The revenues that will be produced by golfers will pay in entirety the operations," he said. "We are not taking anything from other parts of the budget."

County officials had warned that if the courses weren't maintained this year, they would deteriorate and require millions of dollars to repair whenever the county did re-enter the golf business.

Lawmakers had heard charges they were sparing golfers pain while so many important services have been depleted -- public safety, safety-net programs, the arts, money for charitable agencies.

"Actually, this is one of the least important issues we will deal with this year, the golf courses," said Minority Leader Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Clarence. "But the reason we are dealing with it right now is because we have to deal with it right now."

While lawmakers might still need to cut $14 million, and higher property taxes are likely for 2006, officials are finding ways to restore services cut when a proposal to raise the sales tax died.

Three health clinics will remain open in Buffalo, at least for this year. A plan is being devised to reopen all county parks outside the city. Jobs are creeping onto the payroll in small numbers; a plan to open the new Public Safety Center is almost complete; and Thursday members restored $4.2 million for day care to help needy families.

The $4.2 million had been cut when lawmakers thought county taxpayers provided the money for the program. When they learned the federal government provides the money, benefiting about 1,300 children, legislators restored the cash.

Proposals to raise a fee charged by the County Clerk's Office so workers can be hired to help with a backlog and reopen a downtown auto bureau were sent to committee Thursday because they lacked the votes to pass.

To give lawmakers more time to examine the budget, legislators again approved the "Erie County Budget Disclosure Act," which was vetoed by County Executive Joel A. Giambra last year as too difficult to implement.

This year, however, it passed with 14 votes, more than enough muscle to override a veto. Legislator Charles M. Swanick, R-Kenmore, was absent.

The measure, which now heads to a public hearing, requires the county executive to propose budgets by Oct. 15, not the current post-election deadline of Nov. 10. It also requires that he provide a two-year forecast, with a six-year forecast for spending on major projects.

"This gives us another three weeks to work on a budget traditionally in the neighborhood of $1 billion with an $80 million capital program," said Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, who pushed the measure.

Legislators also unanimously agreed to create a 23-member Charter Review Commission -- another measure Giambra vetoed last year -- to look at antiquated sections in the County Charter and propose changes by April 15, 2006.

Sixteen members are appointed by the Legislature, and each countywide official can appoint a member. That measure, too, goes to a public hearing.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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