County Executive Joel A. Giambra wants lawmakers to borrow $15 million for a new Erie Community College building downtown -- a project that watchdogs suggest is too rich for the county's blood.
Giambra's request, filed with the County Legislature late Wednesday, would significantly increase the amount of money the county borrows at a time when both the comptroller and control board are urging restraint. "This is an investment with huge returns," Giambra said Thursday. "I don't think we can afford not to do this, and there's no better time than now to do it."
The expansion of ECC's downtown campus is one of Giambra's pet projects and an idea that enjoys support among lawmakers.
The question is whether the county can afford it this year, given the Legislature's stated desire to cut the $59.2 million capital budget Giambra proposed.
That's nearly double the $30 million borrowing cap county lawmakers established for the rest of this decade.
"I would like to keep spending as low as possible," said Comptroller Mark Poloncarz. "I'd like to see the Legislature be judicious and avoid the type of spending sprees we've had in the past."
Even if lawmakers approve the new borrowing, it could face an uphill battle with the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, which has the power to reject it.
Like Poloncarz, the control board wants the county to adhere to its $30 million annual cap.
"I can tell you one thing -- $59.2 million is just too high," said Authority Executive Director Kenneth Vetter. "That's twice the original projection."
Actually, the total borrowing this year could be closer to $63 million because of the $4 million the Legislature set aside last year for improvements at the Buffalo Zoo.
Giambra says the county can afford that and more, and points to an analysis that suggests the county's debt load is lower than most large counties across the state.
The analysis, prepared by his budget office, estimated the per capita debt in Erie at about $459, compared with Nassau at $2,179, Westchester at $724, Rockland at $702 and Monroe at $567.
"The county has the ability to pay," Giambra said. "Our debt is going down, not up."
Legislators, especially those from Buffalo, like the notion of an expanded downtown campus but wonder if the county can afford it at this time. Legislators also want to reduce Giambra's $59 million capital budget, a plan they consider far too costly.
"I don't believe we'll go to that limit," said Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. "You have to be realistic about what you can afford."
Lawmakers, however, seem poised to go beyond their self-imposed $30 million cap.
Marinelli said she encouraged Giambra to make his ECC request sooner rather than later, but stopped short of suggesting the project would move forward this year.