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Let DiNapoli referee With county projects stalled by standoff, state comptroller should provide clarity

Erie County Executive Chris Collins is absolutely right in describing his county as rich in culture, heritage, advantages and marketability -- and in making it his aim to enhance that marketability as a road to recovery, starting with an attempt to change a local culture of pessimism to one of optimism.

The vision he outlined in his State of the County address is a good one, and deserves applause. But it stumbles -- at least for now -- over the political deadlock that is keeping Erie County and its control board from agreeing on the basic borrowing that is needed to stop the crumbling of county infrastructure and pay some county bills.

This dispute needs to be played by the numbers, not by politics. Beleaguered taxpayers need the least expensive borrowing possible, to ease present and future tax burdens. And those numbers, continually in dispute, need a referee.

That referee should be State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, who can contribute a sound financial analysis of who's right and who's wrong on borrowing capabilities and costs, now and into the future. DiNapoli recently declined to do so, saying the county and its control board have the ability to work this out. He's wrong. The legal ability may exist, but these folks just can't work together.

What Erie County taxpayers have now is a seemingly intractable stalemate between a control board that says it can borrow more cheaply and a county executive and legislative leaders dead set against letting it do so, lest the board remain in "hard" oversight for years into the future. The county claims maintaining a hard control board will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands per year, deeply offsetting any savings in borrowing costs from the board's better, state-backed bond ratings. The board says the savings would be far more substantial than anything the county comptroller can negotiate -- and there are additional arguments over borrowing ability, the amount of savings, who is at fault for earlier failures, the costs of bond insurance and other issues.

It's worth remembering that the control board was put there for a reason. And for now, the control board still functions as taxpayer protection. It would function better were it working in concert with county leaders toward the common goal of sustainable fiscal stability. They're not. Collins, in fact, has hired former state legislator Paul Tokasz as a lobbyist to, in part, push new state legislation that would gut the control board's powers. But the best way to return the board to "soft" status is for the county to save money, and the best way to save money seems to be to let the control board do the borrowing.

There also is another possible change on the horizon. If the federal economic stimulus package, as Collins expects, sends $45 million to Erie County in aid or offsets to Medicare and Medicaid costs, he might be able to submit a balanced budget and a balanced four-year plan. If that money gets past Albany's expert fund siphoners and is not too restricted, control board officials admit, the control board would "lose a reason to stay hard" and could revert automatically to soft or advisory status -- and the county could just borrow on its own.

But that's still an "if." In the meantime, taxpayers need clarity -- not just contention.

DiNapoli, where are you?

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