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Shift from county upkeep may triple cost for the city Ending pact would mean hiring staff replacements

If Buffalo reassumes its role as caretaker of city parks, it may cost up to three times as much as what the city currently pays the county to do the job, Public Works officials estimate.

At least that's how much it would cost to "do it right," Public Works Administrator Charles A. Masi said Wednesday.

In 2004, the city agreed to pay Erie County $1.8 million a year -- and allow the county to keep several hundred thousand dollars in parks revenue -- in return for maintaining Buffalo's 180 parks, playgrounds and recreational facilities.

Now the county wants to end the agreement next June, claiming it's costing county taxpayers too much.

If the 15-year deal fizzles a decade earlier than expected, Buffalo will essentially have to rebuild a Parks Department from the ground up. That would mean hiring anywhere from 45 to 90 full-time workers, finding up to 200 seasonal employees and buying updated equipment.

No matter how you cut it, said Masi, the city will end up spending more to maintain its own parks than it's currently paying the county.

"The size of our parks hasn't gotten smaller, and the needs are greater," he said. "That's because, in my personal opinion, the county hasn't done everything it should have done in terms of maintenance."

While Mayor Byron W. Brown's administration is leaving the door open to a possible contract extension, it also is preparing to take back the parks.

Eight years ago, the city's Parks Division had 95 people on its payroll at a cost of $2.94 million. About 250 seasonal employees also helped take care of parks that include baseball diamonds, basketball courts and neighborhood "pocket" parks.

At the high end of the spectrum, it could cost Buffalo more than $6 million in personnel, equipment and facility costs to take back its parks. A bare-bones strategy would likely cost at least $3.5 million, according to preliminary estimates.

Some city residents and Common Council members think the city should have done it a long time ago. The largest parks that are part of the historic Olmsted system have been nicely maintained by the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, which has a contract with the county, they say.

But many of the 170 smaller parks, playgrounds and recreational facilities scattered in neighborhoods throughout the city have been poorly maintained by county crews, critics say.

"Things have really deteriorated in the last few years," said Bill Chiesi Jr., who owns a home across from Hennepin Park in the Lovejoy District.

Chiesi has contacted city and county officials to complain about dead trees that he thinks threaten the safety of children who play in the park. Tree limbs are left hanging for long periods, the grass has only been cut once every few weeks, and the park often looks unkempt.

"This neighborhood could go either way right now," Chiesi said Wednesday. "The park is our jewel -- it's our centerpiece."

On Buffalo's West Side, the area around Broderick Park at the foot of West Ferry Street is an "embarrassment," said Jeffrey M. Freedman.

The Buffalo attorney was visiting the waterfront Monday and couldn't believe the shoddy conditions. The grass was overgrown, litter was strewn all over, and the bathrooms were even locked.

"There were a couple cars there from out of state," said Freedman. "This leaves a really bad impression of the city."

The park was in good order Wednesday, though, when a News photographer went to visit it.

Freedman stressed he's not beating up on parks maintenance crews, noting that local governments have faced many fiscal challenges.

He likes an idea recently floated by Ellicott Council Member Brian C. Davis that would see the city encourage businesses, block clubs and other groups to essentially "adopt" neighborhood parks. In return for doing routine maintenance chores, the groups would receive supplies and a hearty "thank you" from City Hall.

For more than two years, some Council members have encouraged the administration to weigh the pros and cons of taking back its parks.

Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak said his office has been doing just that in light of Collins' proclamations that the county wants to terminate the agreement next June. There have even been informal discussions about ending the deal earlier or extending it until fall of 2009 so that management control doesn't change during the busy summer months.

When Buffalo handed over maintenance duties to the county in 2004, Masi said, 59 city workers were transferred to the county payroll. The county hired the Olmsted Parks Conservancy to maintain six of the largest parks.

If Buffalo reclaims its parks, many insiders predict efforts would be made to keep the conservancy in its existing role, where it has won praise.

If the conservancy is kept in the mix, public works officials said, the city would still need at least 45 new full-time employees. Without the conservancy, up to double that number would be needed, Masi says.

The least expensive option would involve more extensive use of seasonal employees, who are paid $11.11 an hour and do not receive benefits.

When the parks agreement was announced, the state control board that oversees Buffalo's finances hailed it as a landmark deal that could give "momentum" to other city-county consolidations. This never happened, and a growing number of city and county officials have since criticized the pact for different reasons.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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