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Suburbs open to merging sewer services

Some of the town and village leaders who will collect a larger share of Erie County's sales tax revenue -- in a deal given final approval Tuesday -- say they are willing to consider collaborating with the county on sewer services as a way to save money.

"I think it's a great way we can all work together, to get our costs down and to do good work," said West Seneca Supervisor Paul Clark.

Amherst Supervisor Satish Mohan said his town spends about $10 million a year running a treatment facility, and he welcomes attempts to cut the cost.

The County Legislature Tuesday approved, 11-4, its final procedural vote to continue the "temporary" sales tax penny through 2007. The state has granted a rare two-year extension, because county officials agreed to share $12.5 million with cities, towns and villages next year.

As a condition, county lawmakers insisted on pursuing ways that municipalities could merge services to save money and to re-examine the distribution of all sales tax money. Along with County Executive Joel A. Giambra, they are renewing "collaboration" and "regionalism" as government buzzwords.

Giambra on Tuesday announced his latest initiative -- on sewage systems. He might discuss it again Thursday, during his State of the County address at noon in the Buffalo Convention Center. "Right now we are running disparate systems," Giambra told reporters at a news conference attended by officials from the towns of Amherst, Lancaster, Hamburg and West Seneca, and the villages of Sloan, Akron, Lancaster and Williamsville -- which run sewage operations independent of the county-run facilities in those municipalities.

Giambra called mergers of sewage and water systems the "low-hanging fruit" of regionalism and said he wants to spend $100,000 on a study to determine how the towns and villages can work with the county. His staff is asking whether they all can work together on purchasing, engineering, cleaning, maintenance and emergency repairs.

The objective, Giambra said, would be to create one unified wastewater system, apart from the Buffalo Sewer Authority, which would be operated under the county government umbrella. He conceded the goal could be years away, when he will no longer be county executive. Several times Tuesday, Giambra repeated he has just 23 months left in office.

Environment and Planning Commissioner Andrew M. Eszak said the $100,000 is already budgeted. Erie County officials also may apply for state money, if some of the $25 million that Gov. George E. Pataki has set aside for regional mergers remains in the state budget once approved by the State Legislature.

While the City of Buffalo was not represented at Giambra's news conference, the Buffalo Sewer Authority has been in the loop. General Manager David Comerford said he talked with county officials recently about working together on purchasing, and on whether the authority can provide more of its capacity to serve the Southtowns.

The Buffalo Sewer Authority also handles sewage from West Seneca, Cheektowaga and Lancaster, or about 20 million gallons a day, Comerford said.

Of the $12.5 million in sales tax money to be shared in 2007, Buffalo will collect the largest single share, $5.9 million. The fact Democrats in the State Assembly forced Erie County to share the money left a bad taste with many county lawmakers. But their final procedural vote to continue levying the tax after March 1 went smoothly.

Voting against the measure were Republicans Michael H. Ranzenhofer and Barry A. Weinstein of Amherst and John Mills of Orchard Park, and Democrat Thomas Loughran of Amherst.


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