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CONSOLIDATION OF SEWER, WATER OPERATIONS SOUGHT

A new merger is being touted for Buffalo's water system, but this model doesn't involve the Erie County Water Authority.

Instead, three Common Council members think Buffalo could slash costs and improve efficiency by having one entity run its sewer and water systems. Currently, the systems are operated by separate boards and have their own work forces.

Time is running out for approving a plan that would let voters decide whether the city's aging water system should be sold to the county Water Authority. Supporters have warned that unless the Council takes action within a couple of weeks, state financing that is crucial to the deal will likely evaporate.

But some city lawmakers think there might be a better alternative, noting that some municipalities in other regions have been merging water and sewer operations to achieve savings.

Council members Bonnie E. Russell of University, Joseph Golombek Jr. of North and Antoine M. Thompson of Masten said such a consolidation might allow the operations to share staffs, equipment, billing systems, dispatch services and other resources.

"There's been so much talk about regionalizing and consolidating," said Golombek. "This is something we could do on our own."

Thompson said the merger might even allow the city to broaden its customer base for water service, noting that the Buffalo Sewer Authority already provides some services to suburban communities.

The Common Council on Tuesday sent to committee a resolution that calls for a review of merging the two city entities. Such a consolidation would face numerous legal hurdles and likely need state approval. But advocates think the idea is worth exploring and they want water and sewer officials to spell out potential benefits and disadvantages.

Meanwhile, the Council's most vocal supporter of the plan to sell Buffalo's water system to the county Water Authority intensified his push Tuesday to gauge residents' sentiments on the controversy. James D. Griffin of South sponsored a resolution calling for a public hearing as soon as possible on the proposed sale. His bill was sent to committee.

Supporters have insisted the sale would help hold down water rates, speed up repairs and make the operation more efficient.

But most Council members think there are too many unanswered questions, claiming the purchase offer only addresses issues during the first five or six years. They worry about the sale's long-term impact on things like senior citizen discounts and how much the city would have to pay for water in its own buildings.

Others have concerns about the county Water Authority's plan to eliminate more than half of the existing 125 city jobs.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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