An NFTA funding plan that would commit Erie County and the state to continuing their current assistance levels through 1995 may be the solution to the Erie County Legislature's transit funding dilemma.
Sources close to the funding talks said Tuesday that Legislature Majority Leader Leonard R. Lenihan, D-Town of Tonawanda, met with Cuomo administration officials today in Albany to review a five-year funding strategy.
The proposal includes county and state contributions of $8.2 million and $9 million, respectively, to the faltering Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
The Cuomo administration has insisted it would not extend emergency funding for the NFTA.
State officials' apparent change of heart regarding continuing fiscal assistance would come in return for obtaining control of the NFTA's valuable waterfront property, the sources said.
A development plan for the waterfront, where the NFTA is the largest landowner, is in the early stages of work by the newly formed Horizons Waterfront Commission. There have been repeated calls, reiterated by consultants today, for the NFTA to sell the valuable land and use the assets to focus on running public transit.
Susan Kupferman, the governor's transportation aide, said she has no direct knowledge of Lenihan's plan, although she said today she was aware of his scheduled meeting with staff members.
"I haven't seen the plan. These are new ideas to me, but at this time the governor has not included state funds for the NFTA in his budget beyond the $100,000 for the management and performance audit," she said.
Lenihan declined to disclose any details of his plan or his Albany visit. He would only confirm he had an appointment with Cuomo staffers and would be accompanied by the county's commissioner of environment and planning, Richard M. Tobe, and Legislator Michael A. Fitzpatrick, D-Buffalo.
"I'm going to Albany on county business. I can't really tell you more than that at this time," said Lenihan, adding he won't release his plan until next week at the earliest.
The plan is expected to raise some $23 million annually for transit needs, including a total of $17.2 million from the state and county, plus approximately $6 million from new taxes on rental cars and long-term vehicle leases.
The Legislature's majority leader is also said to be eyeing a $2 per $1,000 boost in the mortgage transfer tax to raise approximately $3 million. That revenue, however, is considered to be less likely to appear in the final plan than the car rental and lease fees, the sources said.
What has come to be known as the "Lenihan Plan" would be structured as a five-year contract among the county, state and NFTA, with a number of conditions built in to safeguard the public dollars flowing into the agency.
Chief among them would be the much-discussed management and performance audit, an annual legislative review of the NFTA's funding needs and a public hearing on the agency's annual budget.
The plan would also satisfy many legislative concerns about the future of the agency's prime waterfront property. Buffalo Democrat David M. Manz said he would need to have that concern addressed before approving a funding plan.
"From the beginning I've been calling for something to be done to get the NFTA out of the waterfront development business and ensure public access," Manz said, also giving high marks to continued state involvement.
"This is the best plan I've heard so far. If we can get the audit, watch how they spend our money and keep the system running without hitting the general public with a lot of new taxes, this could be it," Manz added.
Minority Leader Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, also had generally positive comments about Lenihan's expected funding strategy.
She called it "very creative" and "worth a closer look."
"I do favor his inclusion of the state as a continued partner in NFTA funding. However, I question the need for the rental car and leased vehicle taxes," she said, reiterating her position that there will be enough growth in regular county revenues to provide at least $6 million more to the agency.
A high-ranking Gorski administration official said the expected proposal makes sense for many reasons, including it's rather short-term nature. The official, who requested anonymity, said the five-year contract term will allow the county to finish paying it's debts from the mid-1980s fiscal crisis and be in a position to restructure it's NFTA contribution when the last payment is made in late 1994.
The county is currently paying debt service of more than $10 million annually to erase those back loans, funds that would be freed up by 1995 to potentially replace the state's assistance.