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WATER PRESSURE
CITY BOARD HAS A RIGHT TO GET INFORMATION, BUT A MERGER WILL BENEFIT REGION, CONSUMERS

The recent snag that sidelined a proposed takeover of Buffalo's water system by the Erie County Water Authority should trigger renewed efforts to reach a resolution that benefits consumers.

Wednesday's hitch to the proposed $166 million merger came partly because some city Water Board members were unavoidably absent and partly because the proposed memorandum of agreement delivered only days earlier was, at least for some board members, too vague and left too many unanswered questions. The vote was postponed, but proponents of this deal have until an Aug. 15 funding commitment deadline to resolve those issues.

That could mean late hours and special meetings -- one is scheduled for Tuesday -- but this plan is too important to the city and the region to go unresolved. Consolidation of water systems offers long-term advantages that should not be lost to problems of process or disputes over turf.

City Water Board members have both the duty and responsibility to make sure any takeover deal benefits city water consumers and the city itself. They are entitled to as much specific information as possible.

That said, this region, and its residents, suffer from fragmented jurisdictions with too many agencies doing similar jobs without economies of scale in expense and administration. Consolidating water services is a step away from that. There is no good reason that a consolidation of the region's two major systems can't be done without harming the city or its residents.

In one major area -- the repair of the city's aging water system -- the county deal offers a clear gain. The county Water Authority pledges $15 million a year in annual repairs, far more than the city agency has been able to afford.

Consumer water rates for city residents also are likely to increase with or without a deal, but far more if the city keeps its separate system.

Under the proposed plan, the Erie County Water Authority also would assume the city board's $134.7 million debt and pay the city itself $31.5 million over five years, to offset the loss of the $4 million to $5 million the city general fund now gets from the water board each year.

Critics of this consolidation question the impact on senior citizens, who would lose the current city discount, and on such entities as the Buffalo Zoo, which would no longer get free water, and the city, which eventually would pay for water used in city buildings and from fire hydrants, just as other municipalities do.

But none of those concerns should be a deal breaker. A new consolidated system with excess capacity would be able to avoid costly treatment plant expansions. And the city would be able to avoid expensive system repairs, which would more than offset the loss of future revenues. Both boards should keep working to settle outstanding issues and craft a merger. Both the city and water consumers stand to win.

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