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Roswell Park, new court get boost in state budget

ALBANY – Cuts to Roswell Park Cancer Institute are pushed back. Buffalo gets a new court so it can keep traffic fine revenues. The regional transit authority will receive a big bump in aid. And a tax credit will continue to encourage development on abandoned industrial sites.

Those are among the benefits coming Buffalo’s way as a state budget deal is pieced together at the state Capitol this weekend in advance of the start of the new fiscal year, which begins Wednesday.

But disputes still raged Saturday on even bigger issues, such as how to overhaul education-related laws affecting teacher job performance evaluations and tenure and what to do about failing schools.

Also unresolved is how to spread around a major increase in aid to the state’s 700 school districts. A source with knowledge of the budget talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the sides were looking at a total state education increase of about $1.4 billion, more than what Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed but less than what both the Senate and Assembly advocated.

Several agreements were reached in matters closer to Buffalo, according to Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat. Among them:

• Restoration of a $15.5 million cut in aid to Roswell Park.

• A boost of about $7 million in aid to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

• Extension of the state’s brownfields program, which has been highly effective in Buffalo for the restoration and development of abandoned properties.

• Elimination of state asbestos-removal application fees charged to localities and not-for-profits, which would discourage razing of abandoned buildings.

The deals on Roswell Park, the NFTA and brownfields are considered tentative because the full budget has not yet been locked down and the agreements have not yet been put into a budget bill.

Traffic court for Buffalo

But one measure affecting Buffalo is now a printed bill: a new court system for Buffalo to handle traffic violations and keep the revenues. The state presently reaps those funds.

In the new budget bill, scheduled to be approved Monday, a new executive department of the city government will be created and known as the Buffalo Traffic Violations Agency. The mayor is given the authority to hire an executive director for the traffic violations bureau. It is unclear how many jobs might be created by the legislation or cost to the city, though supporters have said traffic violation revenues will make it a money-maker for the city.

The traffic court system was contained in the first budget bill made public shortly before midnight Friday. It comes a few months after Cuomo vetoed a similar bill approved last year to give the city, like nearby suburban localities, the ability to run its own traffic violations system. Cuomo at the time pledged to work out differences between his administration and lawmakers and get the program into the budget.

Buffalo’s current budget already banks on getting $2 million from traffic violation revenues. Backers also said the city’s handling of traffic violations would give drivers an option to plea-bargain tickets and get an infraction reduced, thereby lowering points on their license. Such an option also would keep auto insurance rates lower for some traffic law violators.

The governor vetoed last year’s measure because of no transition time to a city-run traffic court, Transit aid

The NFTA last week adopted a budget for its bus and rail service and two airports, but commissioners said it was $9 million less what was needed and some repairs and maintenance would go unattended. They asked for state assistance.

The state is coming through with about $7 million.

“This doesn’t solve all of NFTA’s problems, but it’s a step toward that," Ryan said.

A $25 million capital fund for the upstate transit systems is being created, and the NFTA will get a portion.

“We’ve systematically starved the upstate transit agencies for almost a decade, which has led to higher fares, reduced routes. We’ve come to a tipping point," Ryan said. It was uncertain Saturday evening the impact the aid will have on the NFTA.

Brownfields deal reached

An agreement also was reached to extend but change the state’s brownfields program, which gives tax breaks to developers for the restoration and development of mostly abandoned, often polluted properties. Erie County has used the program more than any other county in the state, and a number of high-profile developments in Buffalo have been fueled with the credits.

But the program has been the target of much criticism, especially in downstate areas like Manhattan, where the state provided large tax breaks for properties in high-demand areas and for developments that would have occurred with or without the credits.

Ryan said the deal includes grandfathering the program so any projects in the pipeline can continue getting tax breaks. New eligibility requirements for New York City projects are being established that won’t apply upstate, such as a provision that requires the acquisition and clean-up of a property to be worth more than the site’s appraised value; such a rule is not practical in most upstate areas, proponents have said.

Unresolved issues remain

Despite these agreements, Cuomo left the Capitol Saturday afternoon without the deal his administration was hoping to announce. And for the first time, he signaled that a plan to provide $1.6 billion in property tax breaks for some New Yorkers can be dealt with after a budget agreement is reached.

The governor said his priorities remain getting a stronger ethics law for legislators aimed at outside employment activities, education policies such as tougher teacher evaluation standards and decisions on how to spend a $5 billion surplus, much of which he wants for the Tappan Zee bridge project.

College financial aid for children of illegal immigrants, an education tax credit to mostly benefit private schools, and the property tax program have become too much to handle as the talks have been consumed with education policies and ethics law.

“There’s just a certain amount that the system can handle,’’ he said of budget talks.