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Debate begins over projected Erie County surplus of $9.4 million

Erie County closed out the 2014 fiscal year with a $9.4 million surplus, county Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw plans to announce Thursday.

He says that a third of the surplus should be invested in improvements at the Buffalo Museum of Science and capital costs for a new children’s museum at Canalside.

But that idea met with some skepticism from a key Legislature leader as well as the Poloncarz administration, even though it is also being pushed by Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca. Lorigo will introduce a resolution at Thursday’s Legislature session that calls on County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz to support the plan.

“We can’t propose spending. We can merely suggest it and approve it,” Lorigo said Wednesday, describing the Legislature’s authority on spending proposals.

Meanwhile, Mychajliw described the proposal as one that would be a historic investment for the county aimed at bolstering local tourism. It would grant operators of the Museum of Science $1 million in capital funds to improve its front facade, opening a portion of the building that has been closed since 1977.

Additionally, a $2 million capital grant would go to Explore and More, a group that has already been granted the rights to build a new children’s museum on the site of the old Memorial Auditorium at Canalside.

“I can’t think of a better cause than making sure we can actually build Explore and More at Canalside. The county was the first partner at the table making sure we can build Canalside. We shouldn’t turn our back on that initial investment,” said Mychajliw, a Republican.

Lorigo, a Conservative member of the Legislature’s Republican-aligned majority, shared similar sentiments. “I think it’s a great idea. Explore and More is an organization that is in the heart of my district, and they do phenomenal work,” he said. “They have the opportunity to come to the waterfront and really make themselves a regional destination that can draw people from all over Western New York. I think that’s really what Canalside needs.”

But when contacted by phone Wednesday, Legislature Chairman John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park, was not so bowled over by the plan, calling it premature in light of the massive funds needed to address road and bridge repairs, particularly after the devastation caused by the past harsh winter.

“That’s going to be the first priority, as far as I’m concerned. I think I have enough support on that, even if I have to get it from both sides of the aisle,” said Mills, who also had questions about the comptroller’s $9.4 million surplus projection.

Peter A. Anderson, a spokesman for the Democratic county executive, expressed similar skepticism.

“The 2014 surplus has not been identified or quantified yet,” Anderson said, “and while Erie County does expect to end the year with a modest surplus, how and where the comptroller arrived at that $9.4 million number is unknown and certainly isn’t a projection he discussed with the administration or the Office of Budget and Management. The amount of any surplus is still unknown and could change significantly before the 2014 books are closed.”

Mychajliw acknowledged that the books on the 2014 budget won’t be officially closed until sometime in mid-May. At the end of the day, he said, revenues exceeded expenses by $9.4 million in last year’s $1.4 billion budget, and that the 2014 surplus is 41 times larger than the 2013 surplus.