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Editorial: Legislature should put off consideration of Poloncarz borrowing plan for ECMC

Too much is unknown about the plan for financing a new emergency room at Erie County Medical Center to proceed with it now. The concept floated by Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has enough yellow flags around it that lawmakers cannot responsibly support it without first obtaining additional information.

That would be true in any circumstance, but especially so, given Poloncarz’s unseemly threats if county legislators decline to endorse the maneuvers. It’s usually a mistake to submit under artificial duress.

Poloncarz is pushing a plan that would have the county borrow the $100 million needed to build the new emergency room and undertake other projects at the hospital. The county has a better credit rating and can borrow at a lower cost than the hospital. In exchange, the savings would be deducted from the county’s required payments to ECMC. Thus, the hospital would see no financial benefit, but taxpayers might. It is not insignificant that Thomas Quatroche, the hospital’s CEO, has endorsed the approach.

But important questions arise, including Poloncarz’s plans for how to use the savings. Critics in the Legislature, led by Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, believe Poloncarz plans to front-load the savings on the 30-year loan, relieving near-term budget pressures but potentially leaving his successor a fiscal time bomb, especially if the new money were used to pay for recurring expenses.

That’s the suspicion of Lorigo and others in the Legislature majority. While no one would be surprised if they were merely seeking to obstruct Poloncarz, who insists his plan echoes one pursued by his Republican predecessor with unanimous legislative support, there is also this: Poloncarz has threatened to cut millions of dollars from county programs if legislators kill his plan. He reportedly has enlisted the leaders of some very popular cultural organizations facing possible cuts in lobbying legislators to go along with the borrowing.

If that sounds like blackmail, there’s a reason for that.

Indeed, it’s just the kind of threat that should prompt lawmakers of both parties to apply the brakes. Add to that the legal concerns raised by control board Chairman James Sampson and there are ample reasons to call a timeout.

A number of questions need to be answered before any vote is taken, beginning with a demonstration of the need for a new emergency room. Other hospitals have updated their emergency rooms lately, and it’s entirely possible that the new ER is a necessity for ECMC.

Plainly, the hospital’s ability to repay the loan while maintaining a high level of patient care is also relevant to the decision. And, of course, the financing mechanism has to be considered. While Quatroche says he can’t get a better deal, Lorigo insists that the hospital can cut its costs with a shorter-term loan.

Politics, as always, is playing a complicating role in this dispute. Some is legitimate, as the Legislature performs its critical task of acting as a check on the executive. But Lorigo is also angry at what he sees as Poloncarz’s subterfuge and disrespect of the Legislature. At a recent meeting with The Buffalo News editorial board, he was open about his frustrations.

This borrowing plan can wait a little longer. Legislators need to know how Poloncarz plans to use the projected savings from the deal and to know that it is lawful. If it is legal, if it’s the best deal for ECMC and if taxpayers will benefit over the life of the loan, then everybody wins. As of today, though, none of that is certain.

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