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The Water Board voted, 4-2, Tuesday to support a proposed sale of the city's water system to the Erie County Water Authority, an action hailed by supporters as a key step toward regional consolidation.

But after complaining that "enormous political pressure" is being used to fast-track the process, critics insisted issues remain.

Victoria J. Saxon, the board's chairwoman, pushed for approval of a memorandum of understanding that "establishes a framework" for a county takeover. But she conceded that matters still to be resolved include an "enforcement mechanism" to make sure the county honors its pledge to spend $15 million a year repairing the city's aging system.

"I'm not trivializing those concerns, but I think it's a question of weighing the pros and cons," said Saxon, who supports selling the system. "Ultimately, I see this is as a course that we should venture down."

Moments before the vote, County Executive Joel A. Giambra and Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, the two main advocates of the takeover, made rare appearances at the meeting.

"You guys did the right thing today," Giambra told officials. "This is a very important step."

The Water Board also voted, 4-2, to ask the Common Council to schedule a referendum on the sale. Voters would have to approve the deal by February for the change to take effect next summer.

The county Water Authority is expected to approve the memorandum of understanding Thursday. But even then, the takeover is far from a done deal. The Council began its summer break Tuesday and is not expected to consider the plan until September.

County officials say they hope the Water Board's action will satisfy an Aug. 15 deadline to ensure that the deal remains on a priority list for state financing. The agreement also needs approval by the state and city unions.

Under the plan, the county Water Authority would pay Buffalo $31.5 million in six annual installments and relieve the city of $134.7 million in water debt.

City water rates are expected to increase regardless of who runs the system. But takeover supporters claim rates would increase 56.1 percent over the next decade under the status quo. With the county takeover, city water rates would increase by 34.4 percent over 10 years, according to a consultant's report.

In addition to Saxon, three Water Board member -- Warren K. Galloway, James B. Milroy and John R. Sole -- backed the sale. Charles E. McGriff and Patrick W. Wesp voted no. Both said they have yet to be convinced that the county takeover makes sense economically.


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