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FUNDS LACKING TO REOPEN PARKS
$1 MILLION NEEDED REPORTEDLY SPENT

County Executive Joel A. Giambra's plan to reopen county parks collapsed Thursday because last year's massive deficit probably has consumed the required $1 million.

The parks will remain closed until opposing camps of money managers agree on whether $1 million can be scraped together to rehire 64 workers for the summer and fall.

That could take days or weeks, perhaps until June 15, when outside auditors are expected to present the financial report for last year.

Without proper care, the parks have been deteriorating.

"I'm extremely concerned about the state of Chestnut Ridge," said Orchard Park Supervisor Toni M. Cudney, who had once suggested involving the town in reopening the popular park.

Heavy snow from the last storm of the season damaged trees that now block roads, she said. Litter and trash will accumulate, and vermin will become more noticeable, she predicted.

"It's the beginning of the deterioration. . . . It will very quickly become grown in, and then it's not a park anymore," she said. "It's a preserve."

To open the parks, Giambra wants to use $1 million tucked away for years as the county's contribution to renovating Buffalo Public Schools' All-High Stadium. To meet the All-High promise, he suggested taking $1 million from the county's tobacco settlement money.

The county's massive deficit from last year, which Comptroller Nancy A. Naples has estimated at $106 million, changed all that. Naples says the government probably will need all its reserves -- even the $1 million for All-High Stadium -- to balance last year's books.

The county cannot use $1 million of its tobacco money to care for the parks. The Internal Revenue Service attaches strings to the tobacco dollars the county received in 2000 in one lump sum. The money can go only to long-term projects lasting at least 17.8 years.

The makeover of All-High Stadium would qualify under those rules, but lawmakers would need to act on that matter separately. Until they do so, the contribution to the $8 million stadium project, scheduled to begin next month, remains in doubt.

"It means the project could come to a stop, and I sure hope it doesn't," said David B. Thomas, Buffalo schools athletics director, who explained this week that the county's $1 million would attract other outside grants.

"I will advocate that the $1 million for All-High be spent out of tobacco dollars," said Legislature Chairman George A. Holt Jr., D-Buffalo, who had protected the stadium money for years. But he said nothing can be done for county parks while questions linger.

The Democrats, who control the County Legislature, informally were quizzing Giambra's parks commissioner on the plan Thursday when an aide to Naples arrived to deliver the news.

"There is no fund balance available, pure and simple," said Gregory Gach, Naples' director of grant accounting. The $1 million legislators thought they had set aside for the stadium isn't really there; it must be used to resolve last year's problem, he said.

He also warned that legislators would worsen this year's deficit if they choose to spend $1 million in new funds.

Naples and Budget Director Joseph Passafiume are in rare agreement that this year's budget is out of whack by at least $14 million. But Passafiume disputes Naples' $106 million estimate of last year's deficit, which he predicted would total about $89 million. He also said he thinks the Legislature can safely spend $1 million on the parks. Other Giambra aides agree.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle said Thursday they want the question resolved before they commit the money.

"The Legislature doesn't want to knowingly make a decision that creates a deficit for 2005," said Legislator Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo.

Complications kept legislators from acting Thursday on other pleas to restore services, including Giambra's proposal to charge fees to people under Probation Department supervision so he can rehire 10 probation officers.

Once more, County Clerk David J. Swarts pushed to reopen an auto bureau in downtown Buffalo, but legislators again weren't willing to act if they needed to raise fees. A proposal to reopen an auto bureau without higher fees was put on hold.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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