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This year's paving program may be dead County will not be able to borrow money until end of season

Erie County's road repaving program appears lifeless for this year, since the government will not be able to borrow the money it needs for about 10 more weeks, at the end of the construction season, officials said Tuesday.

So it looks as though about 24 miles of rough suburban and rural roads maintained by the county will continue to jar motorists, at least until next year, when they will be problems for a new county executive.

"There is a real crisis with our roads and bridges," said County Legislator John J. Mills of Orchard Park, the Republican minority leader, who believes budget officials should be able to scrounge up money this year for important infrastructure.

"Drainage, roads, plowing and police protection are the basic services of government," he said. "We had a police car lose its front end on a road in the Town of Collins. We have huge potholes on Foster Road in Collins. Zoar Valley Road is still washed out."

While officials expect a Zoar Valley Road repair effort to begin this year, the other roads he mentioned are not among the 22 county routes that were to have been repaved in a $6 million blitz this summer.

The longest sections on the list of projects put on hold were four miles of Reiter Road from Centerline to Porterville in Aurora and Wales; 2.2 miles of Ketchum Road, between Quaker and Marshfield in Collins

and North Collins; 1.7 miles of Mill Street between Cattaraugus Street and the county line in Concord; 1.6 miles of Colvin Boulevard from Kenmore to Sheridan in the Town of Tonawanda; and 1.5 miles of Aurora Road from William to Clinton in Lancaster.

As for now, crews are performing the less costly work of oiling and chipping the county-maintained roads that need only a layer of oil and stone, not asphalt. The real-property transfer tax -- not money borrowed over the long term -- finances oil and chipping projects.

County government, like others, borrows money for projects and repairs expected to have many years of usefulness. With most road projects, the federal and state governments pitch in significant portions of the cost -- but after the county spends its money.

In the past, county government advanced money from its operating fund to pay for summer road work, then reimbursed the fund when it secured its annual loan. This year, the government does not have the cash to advance for many capital projects. Even if it did, Comptroller Mark. C. Poloncarz says he is reluctant to jeopardize operating dollars he knows must go to pay other bills.

The care of the county's vast road network has long been a friction point in the County Legislature. Road projects trigger bartering between Buffalo legislators and those lawmakers from suburban and rural districts, where the roads are. Erie County now is home to some road and bridge horror stories: the decayed Cemetery Road bridge in Lancaster, for example, or the section of Tonawanda Creek Road that remains buckled after a storm in 2004.

Public Works Commissioner John C. Loffredo said the county and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are still discussing the best way to protect Tonawanda Creek Road from future damage before rebuilding it. The Cemetery Road bridge is on tap for an overhaul in 2009.

County officials set out months ago to identify the projects for which to borrow money this year, and the Legislature authorized a loan. Then Poloncarz said he had to wait for County Executive Joel A. Giambra to specify some other projects to be funded, and there is a question about which sewer projects will need borrowed dollars.

Also, there are questions about whether to simultaneously borrow the $15 million that must be given to Erie County Medical Center for its long-term improvements or wait until later in the year. Those questions led to delays.

Poloncarz expects that within the next two weeks he will seek offers from underwriters willing to help Erie County sell its bonds. Then he needs three weeks to await their offers and a week or so to select the best.

He will present the pact to the control board, and he expects a debate over whether the control board can borrow money more cheaply and should take over the transaction with its own underwriter.

When that matter is settled, there will be assorted chores to ready the bond sale on Wall Street. All told, the borrowed money is not expected in the county's accounts until late September or early October.

"The county had said they were going to do their capital projects earlier in the year," recalled control board Executive Director Kenneth Vetter. "The county has not gone to the market and has put itself in the position of creating a crisis."

Giambra's budget director, James M. Hartman, said the government would have had enough money to advance for summer repaving projects had it drawn in the $36 million offered by a company willing to buy the right to collect and keep the county's overdue property tax payments. The control board, however, halted that deal in May when it asserted the county should have sought more offers.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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