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Tunnel closing first of new security planned for Rath Building

The tunnel leading to the underground parking ramp beneath the Rath County Office Building has been closed.

And that security measure is just the beginning.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz also wants to:

• Put in metal detectors at all the entrances.

• Add 15 new security guards and deputies.

• Fortify building entrances.

The $1.5 million in security measures is the result of county and federal officials assessing security at the building.

Poloncarz vowed to improve security at the building following the deadly terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in December. He started by temporarily closing a pedestrian bridge connecting the Rath Building to Main Place Mall above Pearl Street. It soon reopened with deputies operating a security checkpoint.

“Recent events across the nation and world have shown that heightened awareness and security is necessary in order to safeguard the public and public assets,” Poloncarz said.

He pointed out that other county buildings, including Old County Hall across the street from the Franklin Street side of the Rath Building, have armed officers and metal detectors.

But Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, took a different position in considering the Democratic executive’s request.

“We were told after the San Bernardino shooting we needed to put security on the pedestrian bridge above Pearl Street, so now we have two deputies staffing it,” Lorigo said. “But we’ve yet to be given any credible information of why it is needed. We’re told it is top secret and cannot be shared with us.”

Where the cash will come from is another of Lorigo’s concerns.

Poloncarz says that money in the county’s fund balance will pay for the tighter security measures and that he also will seek state and federal funds. Personnel costs in future years would be part of the county budget.

The Legislature’s Finance and Management Committee, with Lorigo as chairman, is scheduled to review the request next week, and the majority leader is not looking kindly on the hirings.

“I don’t know what he is doing, but it looks to me like he is trying to add more jobs,” Lorigo said of Poloncarz.

The cost for nine new security guards, five deputies and a sergeant is estimated at $858,176 for the remainder of this year. Costs for the purchase of metal detectors, construction work and other improvements are projected at $605,000, according to Poloncarz’s request.

Approval of the full Legislature is needed. “The bulk of the costs would be for the 15 new positions, and that would be a recurring cost,” Lorigo said in wondering where the money would come from in future years since sales tax revenues have been declining.

The Poloncarz administration responded that more security costs money.

“You can’t add security without adding bodies. (Lorigo) is in a protected building across the street with metal detectors and armed guards, so perhaps it’s easy for him to dismiss the security needs that exist at the Rath Building,” said Peter A. Anderson, spokesman for Poloncarz. “But we cannot ignore the safety of Erie County employees or the public that uses this building.”

The Legislature, including Lorigo’s office, is in Old County Hall at 92 Franklin St.

When asked how many guards and deputies are currently at the Rath Building, Anderson declined to comment, explaining that it would not be in the best interest of the public to release that information. Anderson said the decision to close the Franklin Street tunnel leading into the underground Main Place parking ramp was based on concerns that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security expressed that a terrorist could drive a bomb-laden vehicle into the tunnel and detonate it.

The tunnel runs directly beneath the Rath Building to the 1,000-space parking facility, which has one level at street level and two others beneath Main Place Mall and Pearl Street.

Lorigo questioned the logic of closing the tunnel. “To close the Franklin Street entrance to the public garage when you have a public entrance on Pearl Street and a private entrance on Franklin Street doesn’t make sense,” Lorigo said.

The private entrance on Franklin Street leads to an adjoining underground parking facility for county officials. Drivers entering or leaving that secured facility must use a remote-control pass to open the metal roll-up doors.

Since the tunnel was closed to the public ramp over the weekend, Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, or BCAR, which operates it for the city, has received numerous calls from customers complaining about the inconvenience of having to walk farther to reach their jobs after emerging on Pearl Street.

“We’ve gotten a lot of phone calls blaming us, and when we tell them it wasn’t our decision, they say you should have objected more,” said Samuel F. Iraci Jr., executive director of BCAR.

Buffalo resident Rita Parrett said she was upset at having to walk two extra blocks to do business at Old County Hall, after parking at the ramp.

“I didn’t like it at all. I’m a senior citizen and a taxpayer, and I shouldn’t have to walk all that far,” Parrett said. “If there is a security problem, there’s a way around this. Get more security guards.”