Furtive walks in Erie County's forbidden parks may end May 1.
The county should be able to swing open the gates that day -- and cut the grass all summer -- by using $1 million tucked away to renovate Buffalo's All High Stadium, says County Executive Joel A. Giambra. He wants lawmakers to approve the plan Thursday.
The stadium, owned by the Buffalo school system, won't be forgotten, Giambra says. The repair fund can be refilled from Erie County's shrinking pot of tobacco settlement money, which can be used for long-term improvements like those drawn up for the stadium.
The idea wasn't pursued months ago because Legislature Chairman George A. Holt Jr., D-Buffalo, had guarded the All High repair fund. When Holt acquiesced, the plan to reopen the parks bolted ahead, Giambra said.
He said one superintendent and 46 laborers, 10 fewer than last year, will maintain the nine parks. Eight other laid-off superintendents and workers who still live in county-owned park residences can remain, which helps deter vandals. But monthly rents will go from $270 a month to about $325, said Parks Commissioner Angelo Sedita.
"We can get up and running pretty quickly," Sedita said, explaining he can soon start taking reservations for park shelters, while trying to give preference to people who reserved facilities for 2005 only to see their events cast into doubt when the parks were closed.
The parks at Bennett and Wendt beaches could be opened this year, but without lifeguards. The $1 million will last only until Nov. 1, and Giambra predicts that for 2006 he'll propose a parking fee.
Just as Erie County officials hope to open the parks May 1, the Buffalo school system hopes on May 1 to begin the makeover of 78-year-old All High Stadium behind Bennett High School, said David B. Thomas, the school system's athletics director and director of physical education.
The $1 million from county government is helping to cover the $8 million renovation, which includes replacing a four-lane cinder track with a new eight-lane track and replacing the grass field with an all-weather surface, Thomas said. The Buffalo Bills are giving $250,000.
When completed for the spring track season of 2006, the renovated All High will be a community facility, used for large gatherings and youth sports as well as for high school sports, Thomas said.
Despite holes in Erie County's budget, officials are restoring services once considered doomed. While some 1,500 full- and part-time workers have been laid off, three health clinics once targeted for closure will remain open, at least for 2005.
Golf will be played again at the county-owned Grover Cleveland and Elma Meadows courses, and the small park next to Elma Meadows will be cared for. Workers are returning to the payroll in small numbers and the new Public Safety Center should open, despite threats that it wouldn't. And a plan to reopen a downtown auto bureau has been drafted.
In addition, Giambra will propose Thursday a new slate of fees to be paid by people under Probation Department control -- $50 for a drug test, $5 a day for electronic monitoring and $35 a month for general supervision. That should raise $700,000 and enable the rehiring of nine officers and a superintendent, if 10 lawmakers approve.
Still, Comptroller Nancy A. Naples and Budget Director Joseph Passafiume are in rare agreement that lawmakers need to save at least $14 million more this year to swing the budget back into "mathematical balance."
Legislators are waiting for State Comptroller Alan Hevesi's staff to complete a review of county finances and for the county's auditors to confirm the government indeed plowed through all available reserves in 2004, ending with a $106 million deficit.
The Legislature still must implement all the cuts to its own budget. In early March, lawmakers cut the money available for their staff by more than 50 percent, deleting about 60 jobs, and applying pay cuts to many remaining workers. However, few have taken a pay cut yet.
Lawmakers Thursday are expected to vote on a plan to furlough their workers for different weeks of the year, which protects their health benefits and differs from the belt-tightening moves dealt to unionized workers. In nearly all cases, labor contracts kept a furlough and pay cuts off the table, and employees were given pink slips instead.