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Democrats in Legislature confer about borrowing to expand ECC City

Gathered inside party headquarters, the Democrats who control the Erie County Legislature got down to brass tacks on a major, multimillion-dollar vote they could take today.

At least eight of the Legislature's 12 Democrats secreted themselves Monday with County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan. Included in their meeting was a frank discussion about borrowing millions of dollars to expand Erie Community College's downtown campus.

The project is generally favored by Democratic lawmakers representing Buffalo districts, while some suburban legislators harbor concerns that ECC's campuses in Amherst and Orchard Park will be neglected.

There also are the ever-present complaints that the government borrows too much money and a general wariness about the project's biggest advocate, Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra, who leaves office at year's end.

Giambra sees the expansion of the college's downtown campus as a sort of legacy project and a way for Buffalo to compensate for the 1960s urban planning blunder of building the University at Buffalo's second campus on remote Amherst marshland rather than in the city.

Giambra, an ECC graduate, has put on a full-court press, calling lawmakers directly to say that with their votes, they can improve a forlorn corner of downtown, put students of health sciences and law enforcement closer to hospitals and the public safety center, give a new niche to small businesses and attract state aid to help finance the expansion.

The ECC board of trustees backs the endeavor, as does Mayor Byron W. Brown and the Common Council. So do the Legislature's newest members, Buffalo Democrats Betty Jean Grant and Barbara Miller-Williams, who were appointed to fill vacancies this year.

Both made their positions known during Monday's gathering. At one point, some lawmakers reluctant to borrow the money felt that Grant was threatening, as a bargaining chip, to withhold her vote to renew the county's sales tax, which requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature.

Grant says she never made such a threat.

"I have said the sales tax vote, in my district, is not a popular vote," she said. "I have said to people in my district that if I vote for the sales tax, . . . they would get something tangible out of it, and that would be the City Campus."

Giambra has altered his proposal, both to show that he is not neglecting the suburban campuses and to scale back the money to be borrowed this year. Rather than borrowing $15 million this year, he now proposes borrowing $3 million, primarily for the North and South campuses, and renovating the county-owned building at 45 Oak St. downtown so it can be given to ECC for academic needs.

Next year, after his term of office has expired, Giambra wants the government to borrow $17 million to construct another building and a parking facility on a county-owned lot. That would then put the county on the path toward a multiyear expansion that County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, in warning lawmakers against excessive borrowing, estimates at more than $70 million.

Giambra wants the Legislature to agree soon to borrow the $20 million he considers necessary, even though there is a chance that next year's Legislature could change that. Lawmakers could vote when they meet at 2 p.m. today. "That's my hope," said Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda.

County Legislature Democrats use an exemption under New York's Open Meetings Law to privately discuss what are said to be intraparty matters.

The only Democratic lawmakers who did not attend at least part of the meeting Monday were Legislators Michele M. Iannello of Kenmore, Cynthia E. Locklear of West Seneca, Thomas J. Mazur of Cheektowaga and Robert B. Reynolds of Hamburg, according to sources who did attend.

Erie County's Charter Revision Commission last year recommended that the Legislature appoint one of its members as an open-meetings-law officer. Voters in November overwhelmingly approved that change. Marinelli says she will name such an officer soon.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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