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Patience wears thin for county road project Despite 4-year wait, funding still elusive

The congregation from St. Stephen's United Church of Christ in Clarence has this message for Erie County's chief check-writer:

"Four years. We have been very patient."

The people of St. Stephen's are among the residents sick and tired of detours around a useless section of Tonawanda Creek Road.

Spring floods in 2004 buckled about 200 feet of the road. This summer, four years later, it looked as though the repairs were close.

But who knew that the credit market would implode?

County Executive Chris Collins believes that the government has enough cash on hand to pay the contractor recently hired to fix Tonawanda Creek Road, even though the county cannot yet borrow the millions of dollars needed to finance that project and others.

Collins this summer staged a news conference right next to the road barriers so he and a friendly State Senate candidate -- County Legislator Michael H. Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican -- could announce light at the end of the tunnel.

The people of St. Stephen's turned out to applaud.

Enter County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, a Democrat.

A few days ago, Poloncarz was able to borrow $75 million as a bridge loan to help the county pay its daily operating expenses for the rest of the year.

But Poloncarz says that loan does not provide the cash to pay for expensive, long-term improvements, such as repairing Tonawanda Creek Road -- or rebuilding Wehrle Drive in Amherst and the Freeman Road Bridge in Orchard Park, two other projects under way.

To pay for those capital projects and more, the county needs to secure a loan that was in the feuding stages for months. Finally, after the county's elected leaders and the state-appointed financial control board agreed on how to best borrow about $85 million, the credit market fizzled and the control board couldn't close the loan.

Until Poloncarz sees a chance to borrow that $85 million, he won't write the checks Collins wants him to write for major projects. Poloncarz says he had already advanced too much money, about $14 million, for major projects before the credit meltdown.

"The window for further cash advances has ended," he said. "I have directed my staff to halt all cash advances for capital projects."

Collins says Poloncarz is overreacting.

"Once again, the comptroller is being penny-wise and dollar-foolish," he said recently. "Erie County has plenty of cash to pay vendors and continue important road and bridge work."

Collins, through Public Works Commissioner Gerard J. Sentz, has told the contractors on the three projects to press on. So far, none has balked, even though they are collectively owed about $2 million.

Collins figures Poloncarz should come up with the approximately $7 million needed to pay for the projects because they will become more expensive if work must be set aside and restarted later.

Sentz wants the Tonawanda Creek Road project financed, even though cold weather is approaching. The contractor will need to stabilize the site by injecting a compound into the earth. It's best done when the ground is hard, Sentz recently explained.

Poloncarz met Friday with Collins' team to try to resolve the matter and spoke with Collins later. Another meeting is set for today between county officials and the control board to perhaps devise a strategy for borrowing $85 million now that Congress has approved the $700 billion bailout package and Wall Street might warm to long-term municipal bond sales.

In recent months, the people of St. Stephen's Church have sent Poloncarz several appeals to facilitate the Tonawanda Creek Road project.

Friday, they sent Poloncarz another letter, a copy of which Collins' office provided to The Buffalo News: "In these days and in these times, the voters and taxpayers of Erie County require flexible and imaginative leadership from those installed in elected offices throughout the county," they said. "Elected officials without those qualities are worrisome."

Poloncarz intends to say this in his response: "Please understand that my office takes no position concerning the reconstruction of Tonawanda Creek Road -- or any capital project. . . .

"My sole concern as the county's chief financial officer is that we have sufficient funds -- cash -- to pay employees and vendors, fund projects and operate the county."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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