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County frees $7 million to clear out Aud

The Erie County Legislature released $7 million Thursday to strip the old Memorial Auditorium for demolition, while the county holds onto another $7 million because of a dispute with Buffalo officials.

Years ago, County Executive Joel A. Giambra and then-Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello reached a handshake agreement to share equally in preparing the Aud site for a Bass Pro sporting goods store.

The county borrowed $14 million in 2005, assuming the city would repay $7 million. But Mayor Byron W. Brown insists the Giambra-Masiello agreement does not apply to his administration.

"The mayor has made it very clear that there was no formal agreement, and the city is not a party to that," Peter Cutler, Brown's spokesman, said Thursday.

Giambra will not release the remaining $7 million until Brown changes his stance. Since Giambra has just one more month in office, the matter will fall to Chris Collins when he takes over Jan. 1 as county executive.

Officials with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., a state-created agency distinct from county government, have said the issue will not slow preliminary site work for Bass Pro.

The $7 million formally released by a 12-3 vote Thursday will be spent to rid the former home of the Buffalo Sabres of asbestos and other hazards so it can be demolished. Some of the work already has begun.

Earlier this week, the appropriation sailed through the Economic Development Committee, headed by Legislator Timothy M. Kennedy. Kennedy, a protege of Rep. Brian Higgins, another South Buffalo Democrat and a harbor-development advocate, said county lawmakers again have shown they want improvement at the water's edge.

But Kennedy said he would look to the Harbor Development Corp. for guidance on what should be done with the remaining $7 million. Similarly, Legislator Barry A. Weinstein of Amherst, one of the three Republicans who voted against spending the $7 million, said he did not know what should be done with the unused $7 million.

The county has many needs. But when it borrows money for specific projects, it assures lenders the money will be spent only on those projects. So the $7 million is unlikely to be funneled toward road and bridge repairs or other improvements. Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz said the money can be spent only for its original purpose or to pay off the debt.

County officials sorely need $52 million for many ongoing repairs but are locked in a test of wills with their state-appointed control board over who should borrow the money.

Before it can sell bonds on the county's behalf, the Fiscal Stability Authority needs a request from the Legislature to do so. The Legislature voted, 11-4, Thursday to reject the control board's request, deepening their weeks-long stalemate.

"We believe we have made our case on saving taxpayer money without a single layoff or program cut," the authority's six members later said in a joint statement. "The authority will continue to work with the County Legislature, comptroller and county executive and executive-elect on this critical issue."

The control board is scheduled to meet at 2 p.m. today in the Central Library.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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