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ECC funds for new building renewed; But site remains undetermined

Erie County will continue to set aside $7.5 million for a project to construct a new Erie Community College academic building, but the question of where it will be built remains unanswered.

A unanimous vote by county lawmakers on Thursday redesignated the money for the project, but loosened the language about how the funds will be used -- noting only that it will be used for "Erie Community College building construction."

A similar vote taken a year ago specifically designated the funds for a new building on the college's North Campus in Amherst.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz in recent weeks has made it clear that he wants more planning done before a decision is made about its location.

"Without a thorough analysis of ECC's needs and the intended use for the building, no determination can be made of either the programs to be housed in it or the most appropriate site," Poloncarz wrote in a recent letter to members of the Buffalo Common Council.

Poloncarz, in the letter, sought to clarify his position on the proposed project, telling Common Council members that, " I do not at this time support or oppose the construction of this building on any one of ECC's three campuses over another."

Thursday's vote on the ECC project was included in a package of year-end budget balancing amendments that the County Legislature must vote on to close out the county's 2011 books. Without redesignating the $7.5 million, the money would have slipped back into the county's general fund balance.

The county money would be used to match $15 million in state funds for the project, with the college raising another $7.5 million for what is estimated to be a $30 million construction project.

ECC officials two years ago began talking about constructing a new academic building on the college's aging North Campus.

The proposal, since then, has reignited public debate over ECC's three campuses, with former County Executive Joel Giambra leading a call to construct the building on the college's campus in downtown Buffalo. Poloncarz has asked the college to conduct a "space utilization study" for the college's programs, and county and college officials have been meeting to gather information regarding the project.

"The county is committed to working with ECC throughout this process, which is expected to take approximately nine months to a year," Poloncarz wrote. "We are confident the research process will result in credible data that will allow us to be sure that we are making the correct decisions and to gain the support a project of this type requires."

In other business Thursday, the Legislature voted, 8-3, to formally ask the state to extend the county's ability to conduct private bond sales through a negotiated agreement with an underwriter, rather than by a competitive sale in which the bonds are bid.

The county has had the ability to conduct private bond sales since 1986, but has to seek permission from the state every year to renew it.

County Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda, one of three legislators to vote against the item, pressed legislators to send the item back to committee so he could do more research into studies that show competitive sales result in lower costs.

County lawmakers who supported sending the request to the State Legislature said they wanted to preserve both options if the county issues its own general obligation bonds later this year.

"Why would we want to reduce our options?" asked County Comptroller David Shenk, a Democrat appointed to the county post earlier this year.

email: djgee@buffnews.com