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Library checks out way to collect grant
Legislators advise suing to obtain $750,000 withheld by Collins

The Buffalo & Erie County Public Library wants a long-overdue $750,000 from the county.

But County Executive Chris Collins probably will never let the money loose, even though the County Legislature appropriated it for last year.

Collins contends the Legislature supported some of its additional spending last year with rosy and unlikely revenue projections that he calls "phantom dollars."

So in most cases, he has withheld the Legislature-approved extras for cultural groups, the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens and the library system -- even though his budget officials figure the year ended with a surplus of about $20 million.

Jack Connors, vice chairman of the library system's board, recently asked a Legislature committee for help in collecting the $750,000.

Committee members instead suggested the library board sue Collins to get the money.

Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, told Connors that a lawsuit worked when the county executive refused to distribute an extra $208,000 that lawmakers appropriated for Erie Community College.

With Collins still withholding the money as ECC closed its academic year, a handful of Legislature Democrats took him to court.

Collins released the $208,000 before the first court arguments.

Would the library board consider suing county government?

"I don't know. We are still exploring our options," said Sharon A. Thomas, the board's chairwoman.

The money would go toward literacy programs and other expenses, including those associated with the placement of radio frequency identification tags in materials that circulate so patrons can check out of libraries on their own, she said. Erie County's state-appointed control board is helping cover much of the cost of that system with state efficiency grant money it dispenses.

For this year, Collins cut the county's main aid to the library system to $18 million from about $22 million, a serious blow for an organization already juggling the escalating cost of employee health insurance with a cut in state aid.

Amid a public outcry, Collins later agreed to provide a total of about $21 million this year by adding $3 million that would have landed in the county's rainy day fund. He said he was willing to do so only as a one-time measure to spare the library system the full brunt of his $4 million hit.

More recently, he said he would use some $19 million of the county's reserves to help finance new structures at Erie County Medical Center and Erie Community College North Campus in Amherst, and to pay upfront for some road repair projects.

In adopting a budget for last year, Legislature Democrats raised the county's grants for cultural agencies and other attractions beyond what Collins was willing to provide.

The Democrats said the government could afford the extras because Collins had low-balled the savings he would derive by keeping hundreds of county jobs vacant throughout the year.

Collins, through his budget officials, argued he never could amass the "turnover savings" that the Legislature projected. So he refused to distribute the extra money -- though he made exceptions for recipients connected to several friendly county lawmakers.

"The county's budget department is currently in the final stages of closing out fiscal year 2010," said Grant Loomis, a Collins spokesman. "But it is clear that the phantom dollars allocated by the Legislature from the vacancy turnover account did not materialize."

County executives annually send the Legislature a year-end budget-closing measure that moves money between accounts so that no account is overdrawn. Collins, if he so desired, could release the Legislature's extra spending by covering it with money available elsewhere.

"If there was the will, there is the way," Marinelli said.

Collins, however, resists Legislature efforts to amend his budget proposals and usually finds a way to foil them.

The Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens Society, which runs the county-owned asset in South Buffalo, has not received $322,000 in operating aid from the county and, like the libraries, probably won't.

"We ended 2010 with a deficit," said David J. Swarts, the former Erie County clerk and state Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner who is now president and chief executive officer at the Botanical Gardens. "We had to go into our reserves to balance our budget," he said.

He said the organization's accountants recorded the $322,000 as a liability that it is still owed, and Swarts wrote a letter to county officials telling them of this.

Swarts said that Kathy Konst, the Collins-appointed environment and planning commissioner, wrote back to say the Legislature based its extra spending on phantom money and the county does not owe the society the funds from last year.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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