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County gets OK on plan for budget; Control board warns about stadium lease

A four-year outlook for Erie County's budget got the approval Monday of the board appointed to oversee the county's finances.

But the unanimous vote by the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority came with a cautionary note that several unknown budget items -- including jail staffing levels and the potential for upgrades to county-owned Ralph Wilson Stadium under a new Buffalo Bills' lease -- could pose a risk to the county's future financial picture.

"It's a responsible budget," said Brian Lipke, a stability authority member. "But like all budgets today, in this highly volatile environment that we're in, it needs to be watched very carefully."

The authority's review of the first four-year financial plan submitted by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz flagged several areas as potential "risk items," including:

*A pending report on jail staffing levels from the State Commission of Correction that is expected to require the county to hire as many as 50 to 70 new employees.

*Ongoing discussions over the Bills' stadium lease.

*Sales tax revenue that fluctuates from year to year.

*Unsettled labor agreements that could call for salary increases.

*The county's obligation to support Erie County Medical Center.

Stability authority Chairman James Sampson said county officials had put together a plan that appeared "realistic based upon experience and what the environment looks like."

"I think we've very comfortable that they have a solid plan and that we're going to be able to work very cooperatively as we go forward," said Sampson, who was appointed last month to head the authority. "They're very aware that it's a changing environment and a changing context, and we'll remain in contact with them."

The plan submitted by Poloncarz envisions no increase in the property tax rate during the next four years, while trimming the county workforce by about 50 jobs as people retire or leave.

It also revised projections for several revenue and expense lines -- including forecasting higher overtime costs and slower growth in the assessed value of real estate. Both revisions were based on trends the county has seen in recent years, according to explanations the county budget staff provided to the stability authority.

"There are issues we're going to have to adjust, yes, but right now, based on the information that we have and what are known amounts -- known material amounts -- we've presented a very fair, viable plan going forward," Poloncarz said. "I'm very pleased that they unanimously approved it."

Stability authority members are concerned about the impact of a report to be released soon by the Commission of Correction that could require the county to hire dozens of employees to staff the county jails.

"Without a final COC report, it is difficult to estimate the financial impact on the county," the authority said, "but a reasonable initial estimate of $4 million annually in new county spending could be required."

Members of the stability authority are also closely watching negotiations between Erie County and the Bills over the team's lease agreement for the stadium in Orchard Park.

The Buffalo News reported Sunday that the Bills plan to seek a stadium renovation that is expected to cost a little bit more than $200 million.

"It is not clear as to who will underwrite those improvements," the authority said.

The four-year plan submitted by Poloncarz included a continuation of payments for annual game day expenses, adjusted for inflation, but did not address the potential for new debt for stadium construction.

"We don't anticipate the Bills getting any more in an annual operating subsidy from us," Poloncarz said after Monday's control board meeting. "There will be potentially some costs associated with capital, but that would be leveraged out over a 30-year period when we do a bond deal, but that's all stuff we're still negotiating."

Poloncarz said he and his staff are in "serious discussions" with the Bills. "It's in progress," he said earlier Monday. "There are things that we're going to be looking at. Even if they want it, that doesn't mean they're going to get it all."

He would like to reach a deal with the Bills and owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. by the team's late-summer training camp. The least expires in July 2013.

"My goal is to ensure that we have a long-term commitment from the Bills to this community," he said, "so that regardless of what happens, whether I'm county executive, whether Mr. Wilson is still the owner, if it's 10, 15 years from now, that the Bills are still here."