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Council discusses regaining control of city parks, recreation centers

Buffalo should consider regaining control of its parks and recreation centers from Erie County, Common Council members said Tuesday.

In an 8-0 vote, the Council urged city officials to explore the feasibility of having Buffalo take back management of its sprawling parks system.

Under a landmark 2004 agreement, the city is paying the county $1.8 million a year to operate 180 parks, playgrounds and recreational facilities. But Council Majority Leader Dominic J. Bonifacio said there have been complaints about conditions at some sites.

Mayor Byron W. Brown said the city shouldn't take any hasty action that might saddle it with additional costs.

"The question remains, is the city financially healthy enough to resume management of its parks system?" Brown said.

But lawmakers want the city to study the pros and cons. Brian C. Davis of Ellicott District, an opponent of the parks pact from the start, claimed county crews don't give the same kind of attention to many city parks that they give to their own properties.

"In county parks, they're out there with scissors on their hands and knees manicuring the grass," said Davis.

County Executive Joel A. Giambra could not be reached to comment. But Masten Council Member Demone Smith, a former county lawmaker, said some county officials would be eager to return the parks to the city. An audit conducted last year by the county comptroller concluded that Erie County lost money running Buffalo's parks system in the first full year of the agreement.

The state control board that oversees city finances would have to authorize any decision by the city to take back parks maintenance chores. Two staffers from the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority attended Tuesday's meeting. Board analyst Bryce Link later said the panel would have no comment until officials can review the resolution.

The chief executive officer of Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy also attended the meeting. The county hired the conservancy to operate the city's six Olmsted parks. Jonathan M. Holifield did not speak at the meeting. "I'm here to listen and learn," he told a reporter.

Brown said even if the city ultimately decides to take back parks functions, he would want to see the conservancy continue maintaining the Olmsted parks.

Bonifacio said one option might involve the city's taking back certain operations while the county continues to perform some duties. For example, Bonifacio said Buffalo should consider regaining control of recreation centers, the targets of many complaints.

Under the 15-year parks deal, either side can terminate the agreement with a year's notice. Also, parties can renegotiate annual payment provisions.

Waterfront development was also discussed Tuesday. Lawmakers want planners to consider building an amphitheater on the downtown shoreline, a venue that could be used for concerts, plays and movies.

Lawmakers sent to committee a resolution urging the city Planning Board to launch a thorough environmental review before making any decisions on a proposed $80 million ethanol production plant. Council President David A. Franczyk sponsored the bill, saying it is important to review how the alternative fuel plant proposed on an 18-acre parcel along Childs Street near Ohio Street would impact residents in Old First Ward. The Council and Zoning Board must also approve the proposal.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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