Buffalo Bills stadium lease negotiations a decade ago were largely private affairs between the state, Erie County administration and the team. The county Legislature had no input on the deal before approving it and neither did the public.
This time around, multiple legislators contend, they won't be so willing to approve a stadium lease agreement within a few hours of the giant stadium contract being dropped on them and with no public hearing. That's especially true when the deal may come with a $1.4 billion price tag.
"We, the direct representatives of the people in Erie County, have an obligation to make sure those people feel that there is a public forum where they can be heard," said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, at Thursday's Finance and Management Committee.
Under County Executive Mark Poloncarz's 2022 budget proposal, Highmark Stadium would see an investment of $5.3 million, which includes $2.2 million in county borrowing. The rest of the money would come from the state and other sources.
A resolution sponsored by the Republican-supported minority caucus would require a 90-day period for the Legislature to discuss the proposal after it is submitted by the County Executive's Office. The resolution also calls for three public hearings and advance notice for members of the public to offer their comments and feedback.
The matter was tabled on Thursday, but Lorigo vowed to have it discharged from committee and voted on by the Legislature at its regular session next week.
Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government, urged the Legislature to allow the community to voice their opinions in regard to any stadium lease agreement. He pointed out that the Legislature is one of the few governing bodies locally that doesn't offer regular public comment periods, and that being allowed to speak before a Legislature committee requires more effort than necessary.
That makes a formalized plan for public input into the final lease agreement even more important, he said.
Lorigo offered to work with the Democratic majority on a compromise if they thought 90 days was too long, but pointed out that the lease agreement would likely to be a huge document that would take time to review.
Lorigo is one of three county legislators, along with Legislator John Mills, R-Orchard Park, and former Republican Legislator Kevin Hardwick, D-City of Tonawanda, who were members of the Legislature in 2013 when the governing body was asked to approve both the memorandum of understanding, outlining the terms of the deal, and the final stadium lease agreement.
County Executive Mark Poloncarz and former Bills CEO Russ Brandon had announced the tentative terms of the agreement four days before Christmas in 2012.
Both men also appeared before the county Legislature for a lengthy work session in January 2013 to discuss the terms and cost of the agreement, which would require Erie County to earmark roughly $130 million toward a stadium renovation. The Legislature approved the memorandum of understanding later that month after touring the stadium.
But snags developed in the final stages of negotiations, and the Legislature never got a copy of the stadium lease agreement – actually a set of eight different agreements associated with the stadium lease – until March 21. The Legislature was expected to approve the stadium deal the same day, which it did by unanimous vote. No public hearings were ever held.
But 10 years ago, the amount of money the county was expected to shell out was modest in comparison to what will likely be required if the Bills are successful in their demands for a new stadium. And legislators on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about all the stadium terms being hammered in secrecy and, potentially, being rushed through an approval process like last time.
Legislature Chair April Baskin said she has been disappointed by the lack of information from the county administration about what is occurring with negotiations.
The Legislature unanimously adopted a resolution last month demanding more regular updates from the county administration regarding the status of lease negotiations.
"This time, we're talking about several hundred million dollars, possibly in tax dollars, probably the biggest taxpayer paid project in the history of the county," Wolf told legislators. "And I think you have an obligation to hear from the public."
Legislator Jeanne Vinal, D-Amherst, and Finance and Management Committee Chairman Timothy Meyers, D-Cheektowaga, asked questions about the Legislature's legal authority regarding the timetable for voting on the lease agreement and the influence that the public would realistically have on a proposed agreement. Legislator Howard Johnson, D-Buffalo, said he thought it was too early to make any decisions about the process.
Hardwick said that while he thought a 90-day public comment period may be excessive, the idea of offering the public input was a worthy one.