Erie County should borrow $20 million over the next two years to expand Erie Community College's downtown campus and to shore up its two suburban campuses, the Legislature decided Thursday in an 11-4 vote.
The decision, if approved by the county's state-appointed control board, would put ECC on course for a multiyear improvement of its downtown campus -- and create an issue for this year's election season, when lawmakers will be up for new terms and voters will decide on the next county executive.
Candidates could be asked whether next year's Legislature and the next county executive should continue with the plan as refined in recent weeks and endorsed Thursday, or whether the government should go even further and promote one central campus for ECC's approximately 12,000 students, as urged by Legislator Thomas J. Mazur, D-Cheektowaga.
The issue of merging the three ECC campuses downtown, kick-started by County Executive Joel A. Giambra five years ago, ignited an urban-vs.-suburban debate. Giambra sees the downtown expansion as a way to draw students and professionals into the urban core.
To show he wasn't neglecting the suburban aspects, Giambra asked lawmakers to borrow $3 million this year for improvements to the Amherst and Orchard Park campuses and to convert the county-owned building at 45 Oak St. downtown and assign it to ECC. Giambra's plan was backed by ECC trustees.
Next year, after Giambra has completed his term of office, the government would borrow $17 million to build another downtown academic building and a parking facility. Students in health sciences and law enforcement would be near the city's hospitals and the public safety center, and the county could draw millions in state aid to help finance the endeavor.
Four legislators refused to go along for various reasons, including: The government borrows too much, the community does not back the overall strategy, and such a major decision should be left to the next county executive. They were Amherst Republicans Michael H. Ranzenhofer and Barry A. Weinstein, and Democrats Michele M. Iannello of Kenmore and Kathy Konst of Lancaster.
Eleven lawmakers did go along, one more than needed to authorize the borrowing. But even with state aid, the county's $20 million will not finance all the downtown plans on the multiyear wish list for the downtown site. County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz has counted the cost at more than $70 million if officials implement the full scope.
"The Legislature today has sent a message to the world that the renaissance of this great urban region is going to start with knowledge," Giambra said in a statement.
The county control board must approve the plan, and it has been a tough sell on nearly every idea Giambra puts before it.
Earlier Thursday, members the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority met for two hours, expressing only skepticism about a contract that would let an outside company buy the right to collect and keep the county's overdue property taxes plus the interest the county is allowed to add.
The Legislature did not stop at borrowing $20 million Thursday. For the government's annual effort to improve roads and bridges and county-owned buildings, lawmakers agreed to borrow an additional $23 million.
In other action Thursday, lawmakers:
Protected the Democratic Party chairman's appointee to the county Water Authority, Frank E. Swiatek, a former Cheektowaga supervisor and now the Water Authority's chairman. He was given a new three-year term on the authority after County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan said he should continue. Democrats control the Legislature, 12-3, and Swiatek was confirmed, 12-3, but with a vote that crossed party lines.
Three Democratic legislators concerned about the direction of the Water Authority, which has not yet installed standby power for its most crucial machinery, voted against a second term for Swiatek. They were Konst, Cynthia E. Locklear of West Seneca and Robert B. Reynolds Jr. of Hamburg.
Unanimously approved a landmark guide -- five years in the making -- to rein in suburban sprawl. Known as the Framework for Regional Growth, it aims to guide Erie and Niagara counties in bridling the suburban sprawl that forces governments to extend services over a wider region.