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Like a rich uncle, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer received a warm welcome from Erie County officials today. Spitzer was in Buffalo to announce that the tobacco settlement will bring Erie County $23.6 million no later than July and an average of $21 million each year through 2024.

"County leaders are free to use this money for any programs they see fit," Spitzer said. "Taxpayers will soon be recouping some of the money they've been forced to spend over the years due to the lies of Big Tobacco."

Spitzer praised Erie County for being among the first local governments in the nation to launch a lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

The county's total share of the settlement is $548 million. County Executive Gorski, who proposes selling the settlement, said the county could net between $250 and $400 million.

"We will wipe out the entire county debt of $185 million, and there will be no debt in the year 2001," he said. "We will be the only county in the State of New York, other than small Yates County with a population of 22,000, that will be debt free."

"I wanted to get this information out as soon as possible so that the county executive and Legislature would have it as they prepare their budgets for next year and beyond," Spitzer said.

The current Democratic majority and Legislator William A. Pauly, D-Amherst, have pledged to support Gorski's plan to cut taxes by 20.3 percent and eliminate debt through the sale of the county's share of the state's settlement with tobacco companies.

The six Republican legislators propose a 15 percent tax cut next year. The Republican candidate for county executive, City Comptroller Joel A. Giambra, proposed a 30 percent tax cut over four years without using the tobacco settlement.

Money from the tobacco settlement also will help fund community projects, with $4 million set aside for anti-smoking programs, Gorski said.

Gorski noted that Erie County was the first government in the state to launch a lawsuit against the tobacco companies.

"When we filed it two years ago, we knew our lawsuit against Big Tobacco would create historic opportunities for this community," Gorski said. "Today we are seizing those opportunities to provide a better future for all Erie County residents."

Earlier this month, tobacco companies agreed to the final settlement figure for New York State of $25 billion over 25 years. Under that settlement, the state will receive 51.1 percent, New York City 26.6 percent, and the counties 22.3 percent.

Erie County's share, based on population and its costs for treating illnesses linked to smoking, is slightly more than 2 percent of the state total.

County Attorney Kenneth A. Schoetz said it is possible the first $6.7 million will arrive before the end of the year if just one more state agrees to the national tobacco settlement.

Release of the money this year depends on final approval of the lawsuit by 80 percent of the states that are part of the suit, with the settling states representing 80 percent of the total award.

So far, 80 percent of the states agree but represent only 67 percent of the money.

Even if the second 80 percent threshold is not achieved, Erie County's money will be delivered automatically in mid-2000, Schoetz said.

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