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$28 million meant to help city, county goes unspent Control boards say no one has offered credible reform ideas

When tourism officials needed money to rebuild their marketing efforts, a linchpin in the region's economic growth, one of the first places they turned was a group with $18 million in taxpayers' money sitting in the bank.

Erie County's control board said "no" to the request, and that left local officials questioning the benefits of the board's large pool of "efficiency grant" money.

Their questions come at a time when Buffalo's control board is getting its own $10 million pool of money to help spur reforms at City Hall.

"Barely a nickel has been spent," said County Executive Joel A. Giambra. "There's no reason why both these control boards can't use their resources to save taxpayers millions of dollars."

And it's not just the board's tightfisted approach to spending the money that bothers local officials. It's also the limited ways it can be used.

When the Buffalo Convention & Visitors Bureau asked for help -- it wanted $2 million a year for two years -- supporters pointed to the likely return on investment -- millions of dollars more in new sales and bed tax revenue.

But that didn't matter a lick, because the law creating the control board also required the efficiency grants be used exclusively for cost-saving reforms, not changes that increase revenue.

Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said he was surprised by the authority's rejection of the convention bureau proposal, and the Partnership went so far as to appeal to the lawmakers who authored the state law.

And they agreed -- increased funding for the convention bureau would be a violation of the statute.

"Unfortunately," said Rudnick, "that's the way the legislation is written."

Giambra, who sits on the city board and is often at odds with the county board, says the two boards should be using their funds to encourage city-county consolidations. He recently sent a letter to both boards urging a city-county merger of information technology services and staff as a good first step.

Control board officials say Giambra's idea may have merit but, like most of his requests, it lacks substance. They also want proof that Mayor Byron W. Brown supports a merger before setting aside money to make it happen.

"There have not been credible proposals coming from the county," said Kenneth Vetter, executive director of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority. "That's really been the issue for us."

The authority, after 18 months in existence, has approved only one efficiency grant -- $169,000 to hire the University at Buffalo to help study alternatives to jail time.

The board has rejected several other requests, most notably funding for the convention bureau and Giambra's request for money to study a countywide police force. The board is reviewing four new proposals from the county.

"Why would you spend $500,000 on something people won't even talk about," Vetter said of Giambra's regional policing idea.

Giambra doesn't buy it. He says the authority is purposely holding up funding because of personal animosity between the two sides.

And he's not alone. County lawmakers have joined Giambra in criticizing the control board for dragging its feet and refusing to help the county.

"They could force mergers if they wanted to," Giambra said of the authority. "There's so much low-hanging fruit out there."

And the same is true of Buffalo's control board, he said.

Like Erie County, the state set aside money -- $10 million in efficiency grants -- for the city. Albany is expected to release the funding within a few months.

Before the oversight panel releases the aid, Brown will have to submit proposals documenting how the money would improve operations. Earlier this year, city officials indicated a desire to use some of it to upgrade computer systems.

Dorothy A. Johnson, executive director of the city's control board, said the panel has yet to receive detailed proposals from the administration. But she said the board's actions will be steered by one important question: How can the board use the funding to make the city more efficient?

Buffalo's control board also plans to oversee $12.7 million in additional funding the city will soon receive as part of the state's Aid and Incentives to Municipalities.

The program rewards cities that keep the growth in spending below 3.5 percent. The extra money is supposed to be used for initiatives that reduce property tax burdens.

Johnson underscored the importance of making sure the incentives funds and efficiency grants are spent in ways that will improve city operations in the long term.

The county board continues to review Giambra's proposals and met last week to talk about the four new cost-saving initiatives.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com; bmeyer@buffnews.com

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