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County agrees to borrow heavily Target is $86 million to fulfill obligations

Erie County lawmakers agreed Thursday to borrow $86 million to pay for large-scale projects begun in recent years and for work that was to be financed with tobacco-settlement dollars, such as the Bass Pro development at Buffalo's inner harbor.

When county officials used the last of their tobacco-settlement proceeds to close the 2005 deficit, they left some projects in need of money, most notably the plan to remake Memorial Auditorium into a waterfront store for the outdoor sports retailer Bass Pro.

Some taxpayers have criticized the use of public dollars to support what is essentially a private enterprise, but Buffalo and Erie County leaders have agreed that Bass Pro, with a reputation for drawing customers from hundreds of miles, might provide a spark for the city's waterfront.

In that vein, lawmakers also agreed to support calls by Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, to dismantle the Skyway because it blocks waterfront development. The Skyway's maintenance and repair costs also outweigh its value, legislators agreed in a resolution approved unanimously and sent to the state Department of Transportation.

Perhaps surprisingly, there was little debate over whether to borrow $86 million for long-term projects. Erie County borrows every year for capital needs, but the government this year endured a fiscal crisis like none in recent history, and a four-year financial plan calls for raising property taxes by a total of about 50 percent in 2006 and 2007.

Taxpayers have complained Erie County borrows too much, requiring that more tax dollars be consumed by principal and interest. But some county officials, such as Comptroller James M. Hartman, said the government would be in worse shape if it didn't borrow the $86 million by year's end.

Money from the county's operating fund has been advanced for phases of some capital projects, in the belief the operating fund would be replenished with the new loan. If the Legislature didn't follow through, officials would face a new hole in the fund.

They also would strain to pay for the latest phases of courthouse renovations, road and bridge improvements, upgrades to county-owned buildings and final needs for the Public Safety Center, set to open in October.

Of the $86 million to be borrowed, $57 million is for projects approved from 2000 to 2004. Another $24 million will go to projects that were to be paid with tobacco-settlement money -- chiefly $14 million for the county's share of the Bass Pro work, $1.8 million in equipment for Erie Community College, $550,000 in maintenance for Dunn Tire Park and $5.3 million to improve Erie County Medical Center. At one time, the county had wanted to borrow $80 million for new projects this year.

While County Executive Joel A. Giambra intends in 2006 to eliminate a $13.5 million operating subsidy for ECMC -- a vow that will be tested in court -- he and his aides agree the government must finance capital improvements to the hospital.

As for new commitments, lawmakers agreed to borrow $2.6 million for ongoing upgrades to Ralph Wilson Stadium, $247,000 for a lakeshore trail and about $800,000 to improve county buildings, including $365,000 to replace cooling towers atop the Rath County Office Building.

There was no new money for the library system. Buffalo & Erie County Public Library Director Michael C. Mahaney had been waiting earlier this year for the capital dollars to buy new material. As the county's financial strife delayed any capital borrowing for weeks, and with Giambra saying the system must shrink in 2006, library officials began assessing branches to close.

Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, said Thursday that the Giambra administration still has "a moral obligation" to buy materials for the libraries and should try to find money by the end of the year, just as Giambra found $600,000 in a Medicaid account to buy more fuel for county vehicles.

Ten lawmakers, a two-thirds majority, must agree to borrow money in Erie County, and the measure to sell $86 million in bonds passed with barely 10 votes. It was opposed by Republicans Barry Weinstein of Amherst, Denise M. Marshall of Lancaster and Michael Ranzenhofer of Clarence, the Republicans' leader. Republican Charles M. Swanick of Kenmore and Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, were absent.

Lawmakers Thursday also set the stage for a showdown with Giambra over the hiring of consultants. The Legislature had demanded that it sign off any time the government hires a consultant, even one costing less than $10,000, the previous threshold.

The local law, approved in July, followed reports Giambra had rehired some laid-off workers as consultants for less than the threshold $10,000 and without competitive review.

In August, he vetoed the Legislature's local law, saying it would make it too difficult for the county attorney or the district attorney to hire expert witnesses, nor could the Public Works Department swiftly hire an engineer to survey a damaged bridge.

He called the measure flawed on many levels. Laurence K. Rubin, his incoming county attorney, hinted after the override Thursday there might be an attempt to draft a better law.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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