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Niagara leaders fire back in Greenway dispute

WHEATFIELD – The host communities of the Niagara Power Project responded with anger, sarcasm and a veiled threat of litigation Thursday to a proposal to confine Niagara River Greenway funding to the riverbank.

Members of the Niagara Power Coalition declared that a bill sponsored by two state lawmakers from Buffalo is simply an effort by Erie County interests to rob them of millions of dollars they won in 2007, after years of negotiations with the tax-exempt New York Power Authority.

They underlined their view by awarding a total of almost $16 million to six projects, at least five of which would not have been eligible for Greenway money if the bill by Assemblyman Sean Ryan and Sen. Mark Grisanti becomes law.

The two largest projects, a town recreation center in Lewiston and a major construction project at Lewiston-Porter Senior High School, were deemed inconsistent with Greenway goals by the powerless Niagara River Greenway Commission last month.

But the Host Communities Standing Committee, which comprises the seven host entities and a Power Authority representative, approved money for them unanimously. They have sole control of the $3 million a year that the Power Authority agreed in 2007 to pay them for 50 years.

“The funds are ours. The $3 million went to the seven communities,” said Angelo Massaro, attorney for the Niagara Falls School District. “We don’t forget it, and neither should anyone else forget it.”

Lewiston Supervisor Steven L. Reiter said, “I look at this as a serious threat from Erie County to usurp our funding. This is a threat to all the hard work a lot of people put in to recover for what happened here.”

“Tell them to come back in 44 years,” Niagara Falls School Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco said.

While recommending against the Lewiston projects last month, the Greenway Commission favored an $824,000 proposal from SUNY Buffalo State to study the life cycle and habitat of the emerald shiner, a small fish.

Lew-Port School Superintendent R. Christopher Roser sniped, “I’m sorry I don’t have a presentation about something as sexy as the migration of shiners. I’m going to talk about brick-and-mortar things.”

Because of Thursday’s action, Greenway money will pay $6.3 million – $420,000 a year for 15 years – toward a $26 million capital project that Lew-Port voters approved May 21, the same day they rejected the school budget.

The package includes a new swimming pool, main entrance, parking lot, closed-circuit television studio and major upgrades to the school’s auditorium, and music and art classrooms.

The committee also voted $9.2 million to the Lewiston Civic Center, a 139,000-square-foot indoor sports complex, at the rate of $430,000 a year for 30 years. It is to be built on a plot of land in front of Lew-Port High School, which the town is buying for $50,000, if town voters approve the bond issue that will pay for the remainder of the $12.8 million project in a July 15 referendum.

Stanley W. Widger, the Power Coalition’s attorney, said he thinks the Ryan-Grisanti bill is unconstitutional, because the relicensing agreement between the Power Authority and the seven host communities is a contract that in his view cannot be altered by a state law.

“We haven’t reached that point yet,” Widger said when asked if he’s been authorized to challenge the Ryan-Grisanti bill in court. But he added, “I think we’d have a very good case.”