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Big decision down the road for County Legislature Purchase of Cambria property for Public Works Dept. is at issue

During the next few weeks, Niagara County legislators will decide whether to buy property on Junction Road in Cambria as the site for a new Public Works Department headquarters.

That decision hinges on an internal study of whether the county should turn over all highway maintenance to the 12 towns.

The study is under way, although it probably won't be completed by the Aug. 1 deadline set in a County Legislature resolution ordering it.

If the county unloads highway maintenance on the towns, there's no need for a new highway garage.

At last week's Public Works Committee meeting, a resolution to pay $150,000 for property at 5058 Junction Road was placed on the agenda but then withdrawn without discussion.

"I think [legislators] want to have more deliberation internally," County Manager Gregory D. Lewis said. "I don't think the site is an issue. The general project is an issue."

The property the county may buy covers 60.1 acres, according to county tax records. It is assessed by the Town of Cambria at $89,100 and is owned by Marjorie Nelson. It is across the road from the state Department of Transportation facility constructed a few years ago.

"It's a great location for trucks," Lewis said. "Sometimes you have to buy more land than you need to get the location. People don't want to sell just the front 15 acres."

Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster said he had heard four locations were under consideration but no one has shared with him where they are.

Legislator Gerald K. Farnham, chairman of the Public Works Committee, said the recommendation was made to legislators without enough background information.

"Public Works and Greg Lewis dealt through a realtor," Farnham said.

He said the county has to consider whether it would be wiser to reuse the county-owned Mount View campus after the nursing home closes.

"I'm not saying we're going to put trucks on Upper Mountain Road, but we've got to think it through," Farnham said.

A few years ago, Farnham was one of the local officials who compelled trucks heading for the Delphi plant not to use Upper Mountain Road. Lewis said he opposes a highway garage at Mount View because the area is too residential.

Lewis said the estimated $15 million price tag of the new facility will probably increase because the cost of building materials is steadily rising.

Also, Lewis said Public Works isn't the only thing that will be placed at the site. He said the county's two records storage buildings on Davison Road are just about full, so the new site would include records storage.

Burmaster said voting machine storage also has been discussed. The county is taking charge of elections from the cities and towns, which includes owning the machines. If the state ever gets around to approving new electronic voting machines, the county will have to buy about 200 of them and find someplace to keep them when they're not in use.

> Questionnaires sent

Public Works Commissioner Kevin P. O'Brien said last week that questionnaires have been sent to other counties and the state association of county highway chiefs to try to gather information on which counties turn over duties to their towns and how that works out.

Legislators John Syracuse, R-Newfane, and Michael A. Hill, R-Hartland, introduced the study resolution, which passed in June. It instructed Lewis and O'Brien to take charge of the study of a possible town takeover of highway maintenance.

"We know we can't compel the towns to do it," Hill said. "If we can find a way that we can make it advantageous to the towns, financially or otherwise, if it doesn't cost us any more than we're spending now, let's do it."

Cambria Supervisor Wright H. Ellis said the supervisors volunteered to take part in the study but received a reply from O'Brien informing them the Legislature's original resolution did not call for supervisors' participation.

"Hopefully, the decisions won't be made in a vacuum," Ellis said. "I think the supervisors are open to a proposal."

Ellis said expanding snowplowing duties for the towns might not be too onerous for them. Several towns already have agreements with the county to plow county roads within their borders.

"But year-round maintenance, that's a whole different ball game. That would be a lot of dollars and cents," Ellis said.

"I think it would be a great idea, but I don't think it would ever happen," said Farnham, a longtime deputy highway superintendent in Pendleton.

> Heavy burden

Farnham, R-Lockport, said the costs of repaving county roads, mowing grass along the shoulders and cleaning out the drainage ditches beside them are all part of the road maintenance budget and would throw a heavy financial burden on many towns.

"Even if it happened, the transition would take 10 years," he asserted.

"I don't think we're looking that much at that. I think we're just going to [study] the snow," said Michael F. Tracy, the county's deputy public works commissioner for highways.

Farnham and Burmaster agreed that if there are going to be changes, they want an arrangement that all the towns would accept unanimously.

"It has to be all or nothing at all," said Burmaster, R-Ransomville. "It won't work if you have two towns come along and 10 not. It would create a personnel nightmare for the county, and it would backfire on the towns, too."

Hill said he wants to see the results of the questionnaire to other counties. He said, "We don't have to reinvent the wheel. If it works in other counties, how and why does it work?"

Burmaster said discussion of a town takeover of snowplowing arose after this year's St. Patrick's Day snowfall.

Tracy found it hard to round up enough workers to do the county's usual level of plowing work.

"It was a Saturday morning," he said. "We needed a couple of additional men, and we just couldn't seem to get them. . . . I don't think it was a concerted effort on the union's part to not show up. It was just a fluke. We eventually had enough men after a supervisor and myself came in."

Burmaster recalled, "The county roads weren't plowed in certain places. Royalton, I think, was one of them."

But he said he hasn't heard demands from the towns to take over the county's plowing duties.

"I don't see the hue and cry," Burmaster said. "I don't see any of the supervisors coming in here, or the highway superintendents."

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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