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COUNCIL MEMBERS CAST DOUBT ON SALE OF WATER SYSTEM TO COUNTY PANEL

The control board's enthusiastic backing of a plan to sell Buffalo's water system to a county authority apparently doesn't hold much water with the Common Council.

Some lawmakers reiterated their belief Tuesday that there are too many lingering issues, and not nearly enough time to resolve them to meet a mid-December deadline.

The Erie County Water Authority's offer to buy the city's system fueled more debate at a Council Finance Committee meeting Tuesday.

A week earlier, the state control board unanimously urged the Council to approve the takeover. Board members are convinced the deal will speed up repairs to the city's aging system, lower operating costs and hold down water rate increases.

But Council Majority Leader Marc A. Coppola said he doesn't believe officials can address all concerns within the next few weeks to comply with the water authority's deadline. He said one problem is that the plan doesn't look far enough into the future.

"The offer only talks about the first five or six years. What happens after that?" he asked.

The concerns, he said, range from what will happen to senior citizen discounts, to how much the city would have to pay for water in its facilities.

"This offer is sorely deficient in a number of areas," said Coppola.

He also seemed to imply that the control board's recent vote doesn't carry much weight, given the fact that the final decision rests with city lawmakers.

"I hope the control board is not trying to push policy on this Council. That's the worst thing they could do," he said.

Control board Chairman Thomas E. Baker acknowledged last week that the Council has the final say.

South Council Member James D. Griffin called the water sale a "sensible agreement" that would benefit city residents if some additional items could be negotiated. He said takeover advocates addressed the key concerns at a recent meeting.

"I think I'm in the minority, but I thought all the (issues) were put on the table," he said.

Some Council members have maintained that the water system could be a valuable asset if economic conditions improve.

Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana suggested a compromise similar to a plan that saw the county take over city parks last summer. Maybe the city could keep its water system as an asset, but come up with a mutually beneficial plan to have the county manage the system, Fontana said.

Those in favor of the water sale warn that time is running out. The deal hinges on the county authority obtaining favorable state financing that would allow it to assume the city system's existing debt of $125 million. Advocates warn that funding would likely be unavailable unless the Council approves the plan by mid-December and puts it before city voters in a referendum early this winter.

One immediate concern for some Council members is a plan by the county water authority to cut at least 65 of the existing 125 jobs in the city water division. Some question what impact the cuts would have on service.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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