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FUNDING AIMS AT KEEPING BILLS IN BUFFALO

Tuesday's agreement on the state budget would provide money to help keep the Bills in Buffalo.

The budget includes $125 million for recreational facilities statewide, and Gov. Pataki said Rich Stadium "will get a portion" of that funding as part of any deal keeping the Bills from moving.

Brad Race, Pataki's chief of staff, declined to reveal the proposal being made by the state and county, though sources say they are believe to have moved beyond earlier offers involving $60 million in public money.

The new funding proposal was discussed Tuesday at the Capitol during high-level talks involving representatives of the state, county and the Bills.

Race said Tuesday night that the talks had been "productive" and could lead to a new lease agreement with the Bills for Rich Stadium within a month.

But he cautioned the talks still are under way and that Bills' owner Ralph Wilson has made no decision on keeping the team in Buffalo.

"I think the talks were constructive and friendly," Race said. "Everyone is trying to work to the same goal."

Pataki and Wilson, according to Race, will meet sometime around Aug. 8, when the Bills' owner is scheduled to go to Saratoga Springs, where one of his horses is scheduled to race that day.

Appearing to try to downplay any expectations for the meeting, Race called it a "social" gathering between the two men.

"The fact that they may be getting together is not necessarily meaningful to the negotiating process," Race said. Asked why not, he said, "I said 'not necessarily.' "

Tuesday's meeting in the Capitol included top Pataki aides and Jeffrey C. Littmann, the Bills' treasurer and the team's chief negotiator in the talks.

County Attorney Kenneth Schoetz and Richard M. Tobe, a top aide of County Executive Gorski, also attended.

Pace said "fixed time frame or drop dead dates" had been set, "but everybody would like to do it sooner than later." He said, however, the sides are "hopeful" the talks will be concluded in the next month or two.

Despite the lack of details, public discussion of the Bills talks by the governor's top aide indicated to some in the Capitol that the Pataki administration is becoming more confident that the Bills will remain in Buffalo.

But for how long and at what public price remain uncertain.

Saying the talks were at a sensitive stage, the two county officials declined to comment as they emerged from the meeting.

Also in the session down the hall from the governor's office were unidentified officials from the National Football League.

The Bills' 25-year lease with the county-owned Rich Stadium will end after the upcoming season.

Race said Pataki and the 78-year-old Wilson, who recently has been recuperating from back problems -- which included a stay in the Mayo Clinic -- have continued to talk regularly in recent weeks.

"I don't want to characterize anybody's feelings," Race said. "The governor and county executive have engaged in fairly intense negotiations with the Buffalo Bills and the NFL over the past few weeks. Those talks have been constructive, and we hope . . . the Bills will agree to stay."

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