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COUNTY TO INVEST $5 MILLION IN BALLPARK

Erie County is set to sink $5 million into Dunn Tire Park as soon as the ballpark is transferred to the county from the City of Buffalo, officials said Monday.

The money will go toward fixing up the ballpark, not for Buffalo Bisons operating expenses, said Budget Director Joseph Passafiume.

"We are not giving one county taxpayer dollar to the team," said Passafiume. "We are preserving an asset."

Improvements planned for the ballpark include new concrete work, electrical work, new roll-up gates for some entrances and new tops for the dugouts.

The takeover of the ballpark faces one major hurdle in the next few weeks: passage in the County Legislature.

Key legislators said Monday that they are considering the proposal but expressed concern that the administration of County Executive Joel A. Giambra may be parceling out bits and pieces of the county's tobacco sale revenue without having any clear plan of how the money should be spent.

"Once the money is gone, it's gone," said Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore. "We should be looking at the broader issue of what should be done with this tobacco money."

Erie County raised $211 million last year by selling its tobacco settlement. The $5 million for Dunn Tire Park, under the current plan, is interest from the tobacco revenue account, Passafiume said.

Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, said the county is facing "dilemmas of choice" in deciding how to spend the tobacco money.

"I think we should take a look at it," Marinelli said of the ballpark proposal, noting at the same time that more than $150 million in capital requests already have been made by various county departments for funding in 2002.

The Giambra administration is pushing for the Legislature to adopt the ballpark takeover proposal before going on summer recess next month.

Swanick said the Legislature will take a look at the plan, but he told the administration that nothing will be approved until he has all the information on the table.

"This (ballpark) is a proposal we're certainly going to look at," Swanick said.

The Triple-A Buffalo Bisons are owned by Rich Entertainment Group, a subsidiary of the Buffalo-based Rich Products. Under the Giambra administration deal, the Bisons will be responsible for all operating and maintenance costs associated with the ballpark.

In the current city-owned setup, the city pays operating and maintenance costs for the ballpark. The Bisons pay the city lease money each year. Buffalo has been losing about $500,000 a year on the deal, county officials said.

Legislator Judith P. Fisher, D-Buffalo, said the county should make an effort to balance the ways in which it spends its money.

Fisher said she would like the county to make the Buffalo Zoo a top priority once the ballpark deal is finished. She said she would like to see the zoo repaired and rebuilt, not expanded.

"This (ballpark) is our third sports facility," said Fisher, referring to Ralph Wilson Stadium and HSBC Arena. "As a county, we should be looking for ways to support families. The zoo is our best children, family regional asset that we have in Western New York."

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