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TWO ANGRY NFTA COMMISSIONERS TELL COUNTY TO RUN TRANSIT SYSTEM OPERATING PLAN CLOSELY SCRUTINIZED BY BUDGET PANEL

With yet another transit funding crisis looming, two Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority commissioners angrily suggested Monday that Erie County be forced to take over rail and bus operations.

Chances of that happening are slim because the NFTA is a state agency, a county official said later.

Meanwhile, NFTA managers were grilled sharply today as the budget committee continued an item-by-item scrutiny of a proposed $88 million operating plan, up $10 million from the fiscal year that ends in March.

"I'm really concerned about how seriously we are taking this budget crisis when I see requests for salary upgrades in every department," said committee chairman Ronald J. Anthony.

"These requests would not be in here if department managers had not requested them."

Today's session covered the legal department -- seeking to return to its 20-person staff, though only 17 positions are currently being filled -- and the operations budget, the largest chunk of the authority's annual spending.

On Monday, Commissioners James H. Wolford and Glenn S. Hackett proposed dumping Metro Rail and Metro Bus in the county's lap after NFTA Executive Director Alfred H. Savage warned that the authority may be forced to shut down or borrow against its own assets if the county stops making payments ahead of schedule to cover the NFTA payroll.

Earlier, Savage sent a letter to County Executive Gorski asking him to advance the NFTA $1.2 million Feb. 9 and an additional $852,000 Feb. 16 to avoid a shutdown next month. Gorski already has given the NFTA $2 million from the 1990 county budget before it was due to avert threatened shutdowns.

Gorski said he will try to find the money.

County legislative leaders, however, disagreed over whether the cash-strapped NFTA should be given another quick fix instead of long-term financial help.

Commissioners today declined to release specifics of the budget proposals, saying it was "too early to make the budget a public document." But they agreed to prepare two additional copies of their worksheets and ledgers so that the County Legislature's staff could have access to those figures.

Before commissioners can balance the budget, they have to know where they will get about $14 million in revenues from some form of tax and fee plan imposed by the county for the NFTA.

Anthony has said the NFTA must cut back "and work out an "essentials-only" budget and must not increase staffing, which is now at about 1,500 employes.

Anthony has objected to Savage's proposal to remove a freeze on merit increases normally allocated to the authority's top 35 managers.

Commissioners voted last year to freeze those top salary levels -- which range to more than $70,000 annually -- in light of the NFTA's operating deficits.

But Savage has pointed out that some employees in lower classifications now earn more than their supervisors.

There were questions about specific jobs -- handled during a closed executive session. And Commissioner Marilyn A. Royer said she was particularly unhappy with a policy that allowed office staff at the Port and Small Boat Harbor to get summer vacations .

"This is a seasonal job," she said, "and if these people are hired for only 10 months of the year I think it is understood that they do not get vacation time."

Anthony said three more work sessions have been scheduled, but more are likely to be needed.

"When the going is tough, maybe people here have to tighten their belts," he said. "Silence" on particular budget line items "is not assent."

Savage's warning of a new shutdown deadline touched a raw nerve with some commissioners. They are aggravated by the County Legislature's continuing failure to live up to its pledge to create a dedicated funding source for the NFTA by last Dec. 31.

The state, to the authority's added anguish, has refused to release matching funds for the NFTA until a county plan has been enacted.

"We should take the bull by the horns," said Wolford, NFTA acting chairman, "by sending a letter to the county asking them to take over the rail and bus system. Then they won't have to worry about a dedicated source."

Hackett agreed, saying the NFTA staff should make up a "bill of sale" and other documents transferring rail and bus operations to the county.

Wolford and Hackett said the funding crisis is unfair to the hundreds of transit workers who face an uncertain future.

But County Attorney Patrick A. NeMoyer, who was "surprised" to hear the suggestion raised, saw little chance of the county ending up with the keys to Metro Rail and Metro Bus.

Even in the unlikely event that the county agreed to take over the transit system, the NFTA "is a state agency" operating under the Public Authority Law, NeMoyer said. "Any transfer to another agency would have to be approved by the state."

Legislature Chairman Roger I. Blackwell, D-Buffalo, said another infusion of cash isn't the best answer to the NFTA's chronic money shortage.

"It's like putting a Band-Aid on a serious wound, when you really need surgery," he said. "Now that lawmakers finally are considering funding alternatives, . . . giving them more time to make up their minds would be a mistake."

On the other hand, said Majority Leader Leonard R. Lenihan, D-Town of Tonawanda, the short-term reprieve may give the Legislature time to craft the best possible funding plan.

"We may have a few more weeks to finish things up without the threat of a shutdown hanging over our heads, and that's a nice opportunity. I've said all along we can't do our best work in a crisis atmosphere," Lenihan said.

News Staff Reporter Sharon Linstedt contributed to this report.

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