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Collins outlines priorities for surplus; Infrastructure atop $23 million agenda

Erie County Executive Chris Collins has told the Legislature how he wants to spend $23 million of the county's surplus -- on new buildings, remodelings and repairs to roads, bridges, the Holding Center and county-owned gas tanks.

Most of the projects have been proposed before, or Collins has signaled his intent to pursue them. But he intends to finance the undertakings with the government's multimillion-dollar surplus fund rather than by borrowing the money -- the government's custom for major public works projects. So this year's bond sale for capital projects will be cut roughly in half.

Collins has just presented his plan to the Legislature for its consent. Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, refused to bring the strategy to a vote when she presided over its Finance and Management Committee this week because, she said, she wanted more information.

Similarly, Legislator Raymond W. Walter, an Amherst Republican who reliably casts votes for Collins' initiatives, balked when he saw $500,000 targeted for the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Darwin Martin House when the site has already received generous county contributions.

"There are some other organizations that are in need as well," Walter said, mentioning Erie County Cooperative Extension and the Erie County Soil and Water Conservation District.

But the Legislature could still vote to authorize the plan when lawmakers meet next Thursday.

Not all of the projects would be undertaken this year, but Collins would like to direct:

*$11.5 million to meet the county's promise to help Erie County Medical Center relocate its Erie County Home from Alden to a new facility at ECMC's Grider Street campus. The county's contribution was negotiated as part of an agreement governing the government's long-term support for the medical center corporation.

*$7.5 million as county government's share of a new $30 million academic building at the Erie Community College North Campus in Amherst. The money would not be spent until all of the money is committed, including state government's $15 million portion, which was not included in the state's current-year budget.

Collins and ECC officials expect that the state will include its share in the next state budget. The State Senate had included the money in its plan, but it died in the Assembly's Ways and Means Committee.

*$700,000 for repairs at the Holding Center downtown. Jail personnel have embarked on projects such as upgrading security software and updating the kitchen.

*$500,000 to replace aging county-owned fuel tanks and $650,000 to replace the fire-extinguishing systems at county fuel facilities.

*$500,000 to be used as a matching grant for the Darwin Martin House. It would be offered if Darwin Martin Restoration Corp. can draw $1 million in donations.

*$250,000 to renovate the second floor of the Central Library so it can be used as a community meeting area and as a place that can be rented out for events.

Collins says the government can spend the money and still retain about 5 percent of its more than $1 billion annual budget in reserve -- a demand that voters placed on the county when they agreed to certain County Charter amendments in 2006.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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