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Giambra plan for zoo called flawed Comptroller says county lacks cash

Joel A. Giambra says he has a plan to get millions in county aid to the Buffalo Zoo for its rainforest exhibit, even if the Legislature and Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz continue their impasse with the state-appointed control board.

Poloncarz, however, says the county executive's idea won't work. So the situation is not changing, for the zoo and for other institutions expecting county money. The zoo faces interest costs of $28,000 a month on the line of credit it secured so it could pay its rainforest contractors.

The county's decision-makers are haggling over who will borrow money for the zoo project and for other major items.

The control board wants to supplant Poloncarz in his traditional role as the government's borrowing agent, at least for the next loan. The Legislature has not allowed the control board to step in, because lawmakers don't see a need for the board to exist for the decades it will take to repay the debt.

During the stalemate, neither Poloncarz nor the control board has authority to borrow the $52 million aimed at repairs and improvement projects. Until that changes, the county is not providing repair money for Erie Community College, Erie County Medical Center, the fire training academy and the zoo's developing exhibit.

Giambra is unfazed by a U.S. Department of Agriculture report that said a better level of care may have prevented the deaths of three polar bears over the past 16 months. He says the institution deserves the $4 million county officials promised for the exhibit.

In a letter to Poloncarz, he said the zoo can be paid with cash now in the government's operating fund, then the fund can be replenished when officials settle the matter and borrow their $52 million.

Poloncarz won't go for it. There won't be enough cash on hand to pay the zoo and still meet the government's early January payroll, he said.

"Maybe he doesn't understand this stuff," Poloncarz said.

Giambra said that when he views Poloncarz's cash-flow statements he sees enough money to advance to the zoo and the fire-training tower.

"He's chosen not to because he wants to create a crisis to get to do the borrowing," Giambra said. "He's playing keep-away with the control board, which was playing keep-away with me for two years."

Zoo Director Donna M. Fernandes said she can only hope officials settle the matter as soon as possible, or at least by January. That's when she expects the zoo will have drawn its entire $4 million line of credit, and its interest costs will rise to $28,000 a month.

The impasse also threatens the $15 million that county government must provide the medical center by year's end under a court-approved agreement that spells out county aid to the hospital.

The county faces costly penalties if it misses its obligation, but Poloncarz said he may argue that the government should be freed from its burden since a state initiative to close hospitals has changed ECMC's status and its ability to use the money for its intended purpose.


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