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Control Board Approves City Budget, Legislature Delays Parks Agreement

By Joyce Kryszak and Eileen Buckley

Buffalo, NY – Buffalo has a budget. But Frederick Law Olmsted may well be crying. The Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority Wednesday approved the city's budget. But the failure of the Erie County Legislature to approve the city-county parks agreement threatens to close all of Buffalo's beloved signature Olmsted parks and all other recreational facilities.

The control board unanimously approved the fiscal plan, saying it is, technically, in balance. However, that may come at great cost to city residents. The parks department was eliminated from the budget -- as of July 1st -- in anticipation of the merger with Erie County. Control Board Member Richard Tobe said it was the kind of balanced budget he's hoped never to see.

"What a tragedy if the splash pool opens this Saturday and closes July first. No money for capital, no money for operations," said Tobe. "That's what we're facing today, but it's balanced."

The blame for the failed parks merger was laid at the feet of some county legislators who say the deal burdens county taxpayers. County Executive Joel Giambra says the county's union also stood in the way. He says the union objected to workforce terms of the deal that called for augmenting the parks srvices with welfare to work trainees and county inmates. Bill Travis, president of AFSME Local 264 representing city parks workers, says it's unfair to blame it on any union.

"The unions have bent over backwards to get this deal done and it's not an easy task to have your work moved out of your unit. We got our members sitting for months waiting where they stand. they've got twenty, twenty-five years on the job. they don't know where they're going to be July 1," said Travis. "It's not a game we're playing here. We're playing with people's lives and their families."

County and city officials say they will continue to try to hammer out an agreement. But another deadline looms. The control board told the city it must have a contingency plan by June 21st if the merger fails to materialize.

City officials say that would mean finding 78 job cuts in other departments -- or shuttering the parks on July 1st.

Meanwhile, Erie County legislators were supposed to vote on the proposal that calls on the county to take over all city parks. But in a surprise move Wednesday, the proposal was sent back to committee for more review. Lawmakers say they didn't have the proper documents to take a final vote.

Democratic Majority Leader Lynn Marinelli says there was not an actual item to vote on -- only a "draft" of the inter-municipal agreement.

"There is nothing before us at this moment to be voted on," Marinelli said. "I think this is a tragedy for this community. July 1st is just around the corner. We are already in the parks season and we have to get moving."

Marinelli says she's been requesting the proper information over the past few weeks, but it failed to appear before Wednesday's special session.

There was also speculation that there were not enough votes to pass the parks merger. Mayor Masiello said five county lawmakers promised to vote for the plan. Eight votes will be needed for approval.

But Republican Michael Ranzenhofer says it's not a party issue. He also questions if this is an example of regional cooperation.

"Some of the parks we have talked about are really not regional in nature," Ranzehofer said. "We have infrastructure and parks of our own which we have received complaints about that are not being adequately funded. The question is do we take money out of our road fund or do we fire employees?"

Chairman Holt says if lawmakers are able to receive information this week they could reconvene on the issue as early as next week.