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Coalition wants control board to conduct borrowing

Five Erie County legislators issued a letter Thursday warning County Comptroller David J. Shenk that they will do "whatever is necessary" to stop the county from moving forward with a plan to have the county return to borrowing on its own authority this year.

The legislators, members of the Republican-led minority coalition, want the state-appointed Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority to conduct the bond sale to save money.

At the heart of the issue is whether an estimated $860,000 in savings over 13 years outweighs other benefits that staff for County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and Shenk contend the county would see if it returns to borrowing on its own after a six-year hiatus.

"We firmly believe that if you choose a more costly option to borrow on behalf of the county and incur nearly $1 million in unnecessary expenses, you have violated your fiduciary duty to the taxpayers," the five legislators wrote.

The letter was written by Minority Leader John J. Mills and Legislators Kevin R. Hardwick, Edward A. Rath III, Lynne M. Dixon and Joseph C. Lorigo.

The issue flared Thursday during a housekeeping vote by the County Legislature that authorized Poloncarz to enter into a contract with the Buffalo Zoo so that $3 million already promised to a project to upgrade the polar bear exhibit can be spent. The zoo has sought an additional $3 million for the project, but county lawmakers have not yet acted on that request.

The money for the polar bear exhibit is part of a $24.2 million package of already approved capital projects for which the county must borrow by early summer.

"This letter should have been addressed to the county executive because he's the decision-making authority in this situation," said Shenk, a Democrat who is up for election in November. "I just have the ministerial duty to do what I'm supposed to do."

Shenk issued an analysis last month recommending that Poloncarz move forward with having the county do its own borrowing this year "given current market conditions, the county's relatively small amount to be borrowed for capital projects and its pace of retiring debt over the next several years."

Deputy Budget Director Timothy Callan told legislators Thursday that Poloncarz plans to have the county issue its own bonds within the next few weeks. Because the Legislature already has authorized the borrowing, it will not vote again on the issue unless Poloncarz were to decide to ask the control board to borrow the money.

In recent years the control board has been able to borrow money at a lower cost because of its better credit rating.

Shenk and staff for Poloncarz have argued that the county will have a chance at improving its credit rating over time if the county returns to borrowing on its own authority.

Some legislators disagree.

"We are of the belief that no sum of money is too small to save for the taxpayer, but this sum is far too great to waste," the minority coalition wrote.

email: djgee@buffnews.com