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THE BUDGETARY fire the Erie County Legislature is playing with by refusing to solve the mass transit funding crisis may wind up hurting more than just the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and its riders.

As county lawmakers continue to dawdle, Gov. Cuomo is doing a slow burn over their refusal to honor a promise to come up with a dedicated revenue source in exchange for state action to reform the transit agency.

The result is not only the probable loss of ridership stemming from the continuing transit crisis and periodic threats of shutdown. Perhaps equally important is the loss of this area's credibility when it comes to asking Albany for help on any matter.

The County Legislature is jeopardizing this region's image and economy by toying with the mass transit system for political gain. It is also endangering the area's ability to get the state assistance it needs for new sports facilities, new parks or whatever other need might crop up.

Cuomo made that clear on his recent visit when he said pointedly of the Legislature's latest gambit: "It costs you all your other requests. If you go back on your word with no explanation other than opportunism, you're going to be in bad trouble."

And there is little other than political opportunism in the Legislature's continued refusal to come to grips with the transit funding crisis.

The same county politicians playing to the crowd on the transit funding issue had better be ready to shoulder the blame, not only when the trains and buses stop rolling, but when this area's state delegation finds itself suddenly unable to leverage all the state support needed for a project like the World University Games -- which, by the way, was left out of Cuomo's proposed 1990-91 budget.

Games organizers do not doubt that Cuomo will find some money for the extravaganza somewhere in this year's spending package, as he should. But will it be all that the area might rightfully expect if it didn't have the NFTA dispute tarnishing its image?

Granted, the County Legislature is not running the games. But the same state delegation that must plead one funding cause also pleads the other.

When the competition for state dollars gets heated, legislators from other regions can undermine any Western New York plea by simply reminding colleagues of what happened when the state extended itself to give Western New York emergency transit aid. After all, who wants to deal with a welsher?

That political reality, however, should be just a supplement to the real reason the County Legislature should keep its word: This area -- and any area that wants to grow and attract new business -- needs a viable mass transit system, for workers and shoppers and the businesses that depend on them.

After coming up with a reform package that includes county representation on the NFTA board, downgrading the chairman's position, reducing commissioners' salaries and planning for a state-sponsored audit, Cuomo has made it clear he will not reopen the negotiations. And who can blame him?

The County Legislature should stop stalling and come up with dedicated local funding, both to save the transit system and to save its own rapidly dwindling credibility.

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