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Scoreboard dispute creates Ice Bowl sideshow

Ralph Wilson Stadium's new state-of-the-art scoreboard should be OK for the NHL Ice Bowl on Jan. 1, despite a scare reported by county officials Thursday.

Erie County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz revealed in a news conference that scoreboard installer Mitsubishi was refusing to program the board for the hockey contest until it was paid in full for the board's installation, roughly $5 million.

Poloncarz said he could not release the full $5 million until he settled an issue with the state-appointed control board. Specifically: Will Poloncarz -- or the control board -- borrow the money needed for large government improvements and purchases, such as a new high-definition scoreboard towering over the home of the Buffalo Bills?

For a while Thursday, it looked as if the county's face-off would prevent the high-definition scoreboard from being specially programmed for the National Hockey League event. But a Mitsubishi spokesman later said the company has not drawn a line in the sand. The situation apparently had been misread.

"Quite simply, Mitsubishi has no issues with the county or with the Bills," said Mark Scott, a public relations manager for Mitsubishi Electric and Electronics USA, speaking from California.

Scott said that while the company expects to be paid, it will still program the board according to the NHL's wishes, even if it hasn't received its money by Jan. 1.

It's still unclear when Mitsubishi will get its money for the scoreboard, one of the league's best, that it installed this year in Orchard Park to replace an aging JumboTron.

County officials typically borrow the money they spend on the stadium and repay it over time. The county borrowed half of the scoreboard money in 2006, so roughly $2.5 million can be given to the Bills immediately for Mitsubishi, Poloncarz said.

As for the other half, this year's money for major projects and purchases -- a total of $52 million is needed -- has not been borrowed yet, and it is not clear when officials will be able to do so.

The control board must first approve any loan Poloncarz arranges. But the control board wants to act as the borrower, not Poloncarz. The state appointees feel that their board can borrow more cheaply because its credit rating is better than the county's. Both would repay any loan with taxpayer money.

Poloncarz says the control board overstates the potential savings, especially when figuring that the organization will have to exist through a 20-year repayment schedule, paying its employees and renting an office with county tax money.

There are projects that hang in the balance. The Buffalo Zoo needs $4 million promised by county government for its South American Rain Forest Exhibit. Erie Community College needs money to improve its campuses, particularly the North Campus, where an aging heating system creates problems.

The NHL chose Buffalo for its outdoor game Jan. 1 because of the city's classic winters. The league will pay the Bills to use the stadium -- $250,000 plus expenses, according to one source involved in the arrangements. The cost to program the scoreboard is not a county government expense.

Poloncarz said he will immediately provide the money for Mitsubishi, the zoo and ECC when the control board relents and lets him handle this year's loan for capital projects.
The control board's executive director, Kenneth J. Vetter, would say only that the matter is scheduled when the board meets at 2 p.m. today in the Central Library.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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