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Judge bars Legislature from questioning ECMC borrowing

A judge issued a temporary restraining order Monday to keep the Erie County Legislature from forcing control board members to answer their questions Tuesday about a planned $100 million borrowing for the Erie County Medical Center.

Legislature Chairman John Mills, R-Orchard Park, had signed a subpoena for control board members to appear before the Finance and Management Committee Tuesday morning to answer questions about the borrowing deal. The deal would provide money for a new emergency department and other upgrades.

In response, the control board -- formally known as the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority -- went to court on Monday and obtained a temporary restraining order from State Supreme Court Judge Mark Montour. The order requires that Mills and the Legislature to provide evidence showing they have the legal right to compel the control board to appear.

Four members of the 11-member Erie County Legislature remain staunchly opposed to the ECMC borrowing deal, citing a requirement that the hospital pay millions of dollars back to the county for the county's assistance in authorizing the borrowing deal. The money would be used to offset the payments the county must must make to cover expenses related to the care of poor, uninsured and underinsured patients.

Control board president James Sampson said it's not appropriate for the control board members to appear before the Legislature since they are tasked with overseeing Erie County finances approved by both County Executive Mark Poloncarz and the Legislature. Control board members appearing before the Legislature doesn't make sense, given the board's independent, supervisory status and its ability to turn into a "hard" control board with sweeping authority over the county budget, he said.

Sampson also defended the control board's desire to borrow money on the hospital's behalf by pointing out that it has been done before and saves money.

"It's financially the wisest way to go," Sampson said. "There is no story beyond that."

In response, county legislators held a press conference Tuesday lambasting the control board members for refusing to appear and accusing them of engaging in a nontransparent decision-making process.

“I did not take the action lightly to subpoena the board, but after more than two months of trying to work with the ECFSA, to meet with them publicly, I felt I had no choice," Mills said in a statement. "This borrowing item is incredibly important to ECMC and taxpayers, and there are many questions. I would think that the ECFSA, the agency charged with keeping a close eye on county finances, would want to discuss this at a public meeting to fully vet the issue.”

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