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Erie County on short end of cellblock pact with city

Erie County taxpayers could be on the hook for more than $10 million in costs to provide jail services to the City of Buffalo over the next six years unless its 2003 contract can be renegotiated, according to a review released Friday by county Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz.

Poloncarz found that Erie County already lost more than $1.6 million in the deal since the county took control of the city's booking and cellblock functions on Sept. 1, 2003. Furthermore, he says the county is not only being insufficiently reimbursed, but the city is behind by two $234,000 quarterly payments for jail services provided by the county.

"Erie County has to go back to the table with the City of Buffalo," Poloncarz said. "We shouldn't be subsidizing services provided to the City of Buffalo."

If a renegotiated pact cannot be reached, Poloncarz recommends returning the duties to the city when the current deal expires in 2013.

The current agreement, inked July 1, 2003 by County Executive Joel A. Giambra and then-Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, provided for the county's takeover of the booking and housing of Buffalo prisoners at the Erie County Holding Center. The city would remit an annual payment to the county of $937,000. It was a move projected to save the cash-strapped city about $80,000 at a time when a city control board was looming on the horizon.

Poloncarz launched the review of the cellblock agreement after a 2005 audit of the holding center revealed fiscal losses relating to the services provided to the city, Poloncarz said.

In the review, Poloncarz found that while the county broke even in 2003, it lost $357,803 in 2004; $515,579 in 2005; and $788,884 last year. The total cost of positions to staff Buffalo's portion of the lockup -- which was $1.1 million in 2003 -- reached about $1.9 million in 2006, accounting for the deficit.

Now that the county is having fiscal problems and is under a control board of its own, Poloncarz says it's time to stop the bleeding.

"The actual providing of services is working well . . . it's not working on the fiscal aspect of it," Poloncarz said. "The costs are increasing exponentially on an annual basis."

Late Friday afternoon, city officials wouldn't say how they would respond to renegotiating the agreement.

"We have not had an opportunity to review Mr. Poloncarz's report, so it wouldn't be prudent to comment at this time," said Peter K. Cutler, communications director for Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. "I can assure you we'll look at it thoroughly and give it our complete attention as soon as we have a chance."

The initial agreement provided for a five-year term, expiring in 2008. It was automatically renewed for another term last June when neither side offered a notice of termination. That means the agreement remains in effect until at least June 2013.

Renegotiating a payment schedule is provided for in the deal and may occur after every third year, meaning negotiations could start immediately.

Poloncarz recommends Sheriff Timothy B. Howard "immediately commence negotiations . . . to increase the city's payment . . . to fully reimburse the county for its annual cost of services."

Unless that's done, Poloncarz is projecting a loss to the county of about $807,000 to $1 million this year alone. By 2013, he projects total losses ofbetween $5.6 million and$10.4 million.


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