With interest rates rising and a bloated surplus, the Erie County Legislature voted unanimously Thursday to set aside $100 million – $25 million more than County Executive Mark Poloncarz requested — as a down payment on its $250 million obligation to help build a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
Although some Democratic lawmakers were initially reluctant to earmark the money, the push by Republican-sponsored lawmakers to pour more money into the stadium project proved compelling.
So did the county administration and county comptroller’s office that the county could afford to set aside the extra money and there were millions left to roll into county savings.
How important is Buffalo’s status as a small market in the NFL when negotiating a stadium construction deal tied to a 30-year lease? The News explored the situation in an interview with Victor Matheson, sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross.
“I really think the people who benefit the most today are the taxpayers of Erie County,” said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo.
Majority Leader Timothy Meyers, D-Cheektowaga, added, “I don’t want it to be said that this body can’t work together. Because today we worked together, and it was at the benefit the people of Erie County.”
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While the county administration preferred to set aside a more conservative amount this year and decide later how much extra money to spend on its stadium obligations, no one disputed that it would be financially prudent to allocate more money to project before any stadium bond to reduce county borrowing costs.
The amount the county would pay to build the $1.4 billion stadium, between the cash and the loan, is $250 million. An additional $800 million, plus maintenance costs, would be paid for by the state.
Based on preliminary analysis released by the Office of the Comptroller, cutting the additional $25 million from excess cash could save the county at least $42 million over the life of a loan. 30 years for the new Bills facility. The figure would likely be higher as interest rates rise.
While county administrators expect annual expenditures for the new stadium to cost less in future years than if the county had maintained its existing lease terms on Highmark Stadium, the county also expects pay more than ever, on an annual basis, on stage costs over the next two years.
Given the availability of millions of surplus funds, the County Legislature also allocated an additional $8 million for other statutory spending priorities, including:
• $2 million to the Buffalo Zoo for renovations and upgrades to help the zoo maintain its accreditation
• $1.1 million to improve accessibility at the Buffalo History Museum and Tifft Nature Preserve
• $528,000 for more security cameras for Erie County jails
• $1 million to fund a study on disparities that would be overseen by the county’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity
The remainder of the $8 million in legislative amendments is distributed among various county legislators for various pet projects in their districts.
That includes the four Republican-backed lawmakers, most of whom received no individual district spending money during the 2022 budget approval process due to disagreements with the Democratic majority. Each of the four minority caucus lawmakers received $500,000 to spend on improvement projects in their districts, including stipends to various boys and girls clubs, veterans posts, sports, parks, theaters and municipal construction and renovation projects.
Legislator John Bargnesi, D-Tonawanda, who joined the Legislative Assembly in January, and Legislator Jeanne Vinal, D-Amherst, also received spending grant increases for their districts.
Vinal’s funding demands, which were surprisingly high, led to a pause and a flurry of last-minute negotiations among lawmakers. The minority caucus threatened to reject the deal but ultimately agreed to Vinal receiving $750,000.
The vote on the budget balancing amendments came as the Legislature was under pressure to allocate the county’s surplus before the county’s 2021 books close in June.
While Poloncarz submitted his budget balancing amendment proposal early last month, lawmakers have spent the past few weeks arguing over how many millions to spend on the stadium, versus borrowing, how many millions to spend on their own interests, and many millions to sink into county savings accounts.