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Decision on courthouse project fraught with confusion Developer, councilman say there is an agreement, but mayor insists he has nothing solid to present

The City Council is set to "take action" on its $37.5 million courthouse complex on Friday, but it's unclear even to Council members whether that means signing a contract or starting over again.

A second "final" draft of a contract with the city's chosen developer to build the public safety complex on North Main Street was expected to be delivered to the mayor and Council members Wednesday night.

That was the result of a three-hour negotiating session between attorneys and officials representing the city and Ciminelli Development Co. of Amherst and Largo Real Estate of Wheatfield.

While a Ciminelli representative and one councilman said those talks ended with handshakes and a feeling that all was settled, Mayor Vince Anello gave another story when questioned after the meeting.

"I don't have an agreement that's ready to be presented to the Council," Anello said. "All I can say is [the attorneys] have agreed to meet tomorrow."

But the state Office of Court Administration wants to see something completed soon. The state mandated the city replace its deteriorating courthouse by March 2007 or face up to $12 million in sanctions.

A meeting was held earlier this week with Office of Court Administration representatives who made it clear to Council Chairman Charles Walker that they were not pleased with the city's lack of progress.

So Walker called a special meeting for Friday to take some sort of action on the courthouse project. He wasn't available on Wednesday, but other councilmen have different theories on what will be presented to the Council.

Councilman Chris A. Robins, who is embarrassed by the city's stagnation on the largest building project in 30 years, says he believes the Council will vote on whether or not it wants to continue negotiating with Ciminelli to build the complex.

"If we don't have a contract that people are comfortable with, there will be a vote to continue with negotiations or not," he said.

Robins said he looked at a draft last week that he said has "some holes" but hasn't seen the two most recent copies of the proposed contract.

Councilman Lewis Rotella has seen a more recent draft, and sat in on the two most recent negotiation sessions. He said Wednesday he's in favor of the contract and feels all the issues have been addressed. He said he wants the mayor to present a contract to the Council on Friday so it can finally be decided.

Meanwhile, the city appears to be pursuing Anello's idea to complete the building as a scaled-down public works project managed by city employees.

The Council rejected that idea this year, and Largo moved forward with property acquisition. The firm contacted all the property owners on the project site last month and had verbal agreements on all but one.

However, Ralph Aversa has offered $125,000 for a church property on South Avenue that Largo was prepared to buy for $75,000, according to Kevin Greiner, Ciminelli senior development project manager.

When contacted by The Buffalo News, Aversa said he had "no comment" and declined to say why he would not speak about the offer he made for the property.

"We just know the property owner told us he was offered $50,000 more than we offered him," Greiner said. "This was last week when we went to present a formal purchase offer."

Greiner said his office was "stupefied" by the revelation.

Anello would not say whether the information was true or not, and Stewart was not available for comment Wednesday.

Anello said he has a "fiduciary responsibility not to discuss" the city's attempt to purchase land.

"I haven't spoken to the minister about that. Ralph Aversa is doing what he needs to do, and as far as further discussions I have no comment," he said. "I'm not going to comment on things we're involved with."

e-mail: gfranklin@buffnews.com

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