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Three separate groups in Niagara County are working to extract concessions from the New York Power Authority in return for supporting the renewal of its license in 2007.

Members of one of those groups met Tuesday evening and asked whether they should merge -- or face the consequences of waging separate campaigns that might work against the overall interests of Niagara County.

At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars in concessions by the Power Authority to cities, towns and school boards, in the form of cash grants, payments in lieu of taxes and cheap electric power.

"Eventually, the three groups will have to come together on issues that affect all of Niagara County," said Samuel M. Ferraro, Niagara County commissioner of planning, development and tourism.

Ferraro served as chairman of the first meeting of the Niagara County Stakeholders Committee, which was formed June 20 by the County Legislature. The stakeholders are to submit recommendations by Oct. 1, 2001, and either continue their work or disband.

The meeting in the legislative chambers was attended by nearly all 23 members of the Stakeholders Committee. Many of them are also members of the other two groups:

The Relicensing Consensus Committee of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, composed of 21 representatives from Niagara and Erie counties. Co-chairmen are Ferraro, representing Niagara, and Kevin Donovan, representing Erie County. Donovan is Buffalo-area director of the United Auto Workers.

The Niagara Power Coalition, representing seven municipalities and school boards in western Niagara County. It has been researching the issue for seven years and has retained Carol Smoots, a noted energy attorney in Washington, D.C.

State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-North Tonawanda, who is a member of all three groups, warned that if they do not "get on the same page and collectively send a single message" to Albany, the matter might be taken out of their hands and settled in Washington.

The traditional approach to relicensing the Power Authority has more federal control, and dialogue among the parties begins only after all the application documents have been filed by the Power Authority.

Niagara County has endorsed an alternative, collaborative approach that would allow more local involvement and dialogue among all interested stakeholders before the application is filed.

Maziarz also warned that "maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars from school and municipal taxes will be spent on consultants" by all three groups, "to take us down separate paths."

"No one wants to go to three different meetings," said Niagara County Legislator Lee Simonson, R-Lewiston. "The Niagara Power Coalition has done a fine job over the past seven years. I hope two of the groups merge; I don't know if there's room for the Niagara Power Coalition."

But Mark Zito, president of the Niagara Power Coalition, said it is necessary for the three groups to continue serving their own constituencies.

"Once we understand what the process means, it's going to show why you're going to need a separation in some of the consultants and people you hire," he said.

"This process is going to bring a lot of people into the process who have nothing to do with Niagara County," Zito went on. "Some of us may be looking for different items and so need separate consultants."

"I don't see them sitting down and negotiating with three entities," Donovan said.

But State Sen. Robert A. Daly, R-Niagara Falls, agreed with Zito.

"Not all interests can be addressed from the same table," he said. "But we need to concentrate on collaborating locally when we address nonlocal issues."

Simonson said Niagara County is looking at between $300 million and $400 million from the Power Authority, adding that some municipalities will want to receive cash for the land they lost when the hydroelectric plant was built in Lewiston.

"Cash payments go against low-costing power," Simonson said. "You can't have both. The day will come when the question is, 'What do you want?' And right now, we don't have an answer."

Ferraro said the answer will come with more information. He said a three-day seminar on hydro relicensing will open Oct. 30 at the Delphi Training Center in Lockport.

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