Control board lobbying to spend more
Additional $2.1 million is sought from county for region's tourism bureau
By PHIL FAIRBANKS
News Staff Reporter
Erie County's control board, which has always been sharply critical of the county's spending habits, is taking on a new and controversial role - lobbying lawmakers for more spending.
The board's chairman, Anthony J. Baynes, part of a delegation that included the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, met privately with legislative leaders last Wednesday to ask for $2.1 million in new funding for the region's tourism-marketing efforts.
County lawmakers said they were put off by the board's behind-the-scenes lobbying effort on behalf of the Partnership and the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau.
They also say the board's representatives advocated dipping into the county's 2006 surplus to pay for the increased aid, a proposal that conflicts with its public position in favor of higher reserves.
"You can't handle this with a backroom deal," said Majority Leader Maria A. Whyte, D-Buffalo, one of three lawmakers who met with the delegation. "And you can't handle it with a gimmick."
County Executive Joel A. Giambra added to the debate Tuesday when he formally proposed legislation that would meet the tourism bureau's request.
His proposal, filed with the Legislature, calls for setting aside the $2.1 million in the existing county budget, a move that would lower the $21.7 million surplus and reduce the amount of money going into the county's reserves.
The deal, if approved, ultimately would designate all of the county's hotel bed tax revenue - an estimated $6.4 million next year - for use by the tourism bureau.
In return, the bureau would begin funding several tourism-related expenses now paid by the county, including the downtown convention center. The group also would give the county $1 million in each of the next two years.
Lawmakers say they support increased funding for the tourism bureau but think the increase needs to be phased in over a few years. They gave the group $500,000 more next year.
"We're not going to rob Peter to pay Paul," said Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. "And we're not going to start raiding the reserve account."
Control board officials say their support to increase funding for the tourism bureau dates from several weeks ago - the board sent a letter of support during budget deliberations - but they challenge the notion that last week's meeting amounted to lobbying by the board.
"We see this as an investment," said Kenneth Vetter, executive director of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority. "The [tourism bureau] brings in new dollars to a community that desperately needs new dollars."
Vetter said increased funding for the tourism bureau makes economic sense because it would translate into more visitors and that means more revenue from the sales and bed taxes. Some estimates indicate that the return could amount to four times the county's original investment.
"This is common sense," Baynes said. "But at the end of the day, it's the [legislators] who decide how the CVB is funded."
Baynes took exception to the term "lobbying" but acknowledged that the board encouraged lawmakers to give more money to the tourism bureau.
He also suggested that the criticism is part of a larger campaign to discredit him and that lawmakers are spreading reports that he wants to run for county executive - a job in which he says he has no interest.
The deal, if it goes through, would give the bureau what it always wanted - a dedicated source of money for its marketing efforts.
The agreement would more than triple the amount of county money that goes to the bureau but saddle the group with additional expenses, most notably the convention center and its own budget. The group also would fund the Buffalo Niagara Film Commission.
Tourism officials say the deal would help market the county's premier attractions and enhance the effect of public money used on high-profile projects such as the Darwin Martin House and the inner harbor.
The deal, if approved by county legislators, would reverse a trend in which the bureau's budget has dropped from $4.6 million three years ago to just over $2 million this year.
"This is a positive, positive economic development for Erie County," said Richard Geiger, executive director of the tourism bureau. "We are the only organization in this community that generates its own money through the bed tax."
The Partnership, Buffalo's foremost business group, also endorsed the deal unveiled by Giambra on Tuesday.
"Why are we doing this? Jobs, jobs, jobs," said Craig W. Turner, the Partnership's government affairs manager.
Lawmakers do not dispute the notion that increased funding for the bureau means increased tax revenue. What they do challenge is the way the bureau's supporters plan to do it.
They also see the control board's advocacy as hypocritical.
On the one hand, the board urges them to increase the county's budget reserves - a vital step in the eyes of the county's credit-rating agencies - but on the other hand, it wants to tap those reserves to fund the tourism bureau.
"Either they're there for the good of the taxpayer or they're there for their own pet projects," said Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore, who met with Baynes and Vetter last week.
Lawmakers were not the only county officials questioning the wisdom of the tourism bureau proposal.
"I'm not against funding the CVB, but not by raiding our surplus," said County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, a strong advocate for increasing the county's reserves.
Poloncarz, who plans to communicate his opposition to lawmakers, thinks the issue should have been resolved as part of budget deliberations last month.
Giambra, the county official who normally spars with the control board, found himself in the position of siding with the board on this issue. "We believe tourism is our only growth industry," he said Tuesday.
Of course, that didn't stop him from taking his own jab at the control board.
"I don't know if they're lobbying," Giambra said, "but I think there's a level of hypocrisy coming from the control board that is amazing."