Cowed over the prospect of appearing unsympathetic about Erie County’s winter-ravaged roads, minority Democrats in the Legislature Thursday helped Republicans deliver a veto-proof allocation of $5 million more in spending for road repairs.
The additional funds will be drawn from the county’s $89 million surplus.
However, the specific road projects that those funds might cover remained undetermined Thursday, which is precisely what prompted Democratic lawmakers to withhold their support for the Republican- sponsored resolution two weeks ago. That, and the fact that officials in the Department of Public Works expressed doubts about its crews being able take on any more road repair projects this season.
“If they can get it done, fine, but we don’t expect them to be able to achieve that. But if they do, at least we didn’t block it,” said Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, explaining why Democrats yielded to the Republican-aligned majority Thursday and made the vote unanimous.
“We didn’t want the perception out there that we do not care about the condition of the county’s roads and bridges. We do care,” Miller-Williams added.
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz had indicated that he was not supportive of allocating $5 million in surplus funds to expand the number of road projects after he had already added $4.6 million to the county’s road reconstruction and repair budget for 2014, bringing the total to $27.1 million.
However, Republican-aligned members of the Legislature argued that the additional $5 million investment is crucial because of the extraordinary toll the past winter season had taken on the county’s roads.
Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo said he was not surprised that Democratic lawmakers joined the majority in the end.
“I think anytime you put legislators on the spot to spend money to fix a public safety issue, I’d be surprised if they didn’t vote for it. So I’m very happy that my colleagues across the aisle voted unanimously to support this extra $5 million allocation,” Lorigo said.
“If, for some reason, the money can’t all be spent, the money goes right back in the fund balance,” he added.
However, he and other lawmakers in the majority expressed confidence that public works crews can attend to an additional $5 million worth of projects this season. If they can’t, Lorigo said, that will be fault of the administration, “because we’re giving the administration the money to do it.”
“They’re arbitrarily allocating $5 million with no plan. It’s misleading the public into thinking we’re doing more road work than we have the actual capacity to do this year,” Cornell said.
“I can guarantee, four months from now, when it turns out that the experts in public works were right in saying they can do only so much work, [the Legislature majority] is probably going to come back and start criticizing the county executive for not doing all the work that they allocated resources for,” Cornell added.
Democratic Legislator Patrick B. Burke of Buffalo said the lack of clarity is what finally prompted him to vote in favor of the allocation.
“We never received word from the administration on how much extra road work could be done, so how could I vote against the project?” Burke said.