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Local officials plan to fill budget holes, expand internet access with stimulus funds

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Schumer: thumbs up Relief is on the way (copy)

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer was in Buffalo Tuesday and said "help is on the way" to Western New York through the American Rescue Plan he just led to passage in the U.S. Senate.

WASHINGTON – The holes that the pandemic blew through the region's local government budgets will soon be overflowing with federal dollars, thanks to the federal stimulus plan.

Once they have fixed their fiscal problems, cities, counties and towns will then have millions left over – to help residents, businesses and nonprofits; to pay essential workers still busy fighting the Covid-19 outbreak; and to rebuild crumbling sewer and water systems. Local officials said they were especially excited to hear that they can use the influx of federal funds to bring high-speed broadband internet to the poorest and most remote corners of Western New York.

That is what local officials concluded Tuesday as the House moved toward final passage of President Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

The effort will bring $775.41 million to counties, cities and towns in the Buffalo metro region, with the city of Buffalo to receive the largest chunk by far: $350.05 million. Other governments set for a bonanza include Erie County, which will get $178.18 million, and the city of Niagara Falls, which will get $59.48 million. But every major local community will receive millions.

The money, which can be spent over the next four years, left local officials giddily proposing the completion of projects they only dreamed of before – and in one case, wondering how they could ever spend so much money. And it left the local lawmakers who backed the bill raving about its significance.

"It's a historic package that helps just about every Western New Yorker one way or another," said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who shepherded the bill through the Senate, on a visit to Buffalo Tuesday.

Schumer specifically touted the provision in the bill aimed at saving troubled restaurants, but that is just a small part of a mammoth measure that will send most Americans $1,400 stimulus payments; solve the state's fiscal problem; shower money on public schools; and add a thick new layer to the nation's social safety net.

Here is a close look at the money heading toward local governments in Western New York and how that money might be spent:

The city's windfall

The incoming influx of federal funds, far more than it needs to fill its $65 million budget hole, was the talk of the Common Council's Finance Committee meeting Tuesday.

"I really want to see the details of how this can be used, and then look at how do we realign our finances, so that ... we have a better control or handle of future emergencies," University District Council Member Rasheed N.C. Wyatt, who chairs the finance panel, said afterwards.

Council President Darius G. Pridgen agreed, saying: "I think that we need to readjust our upcoming budget to ensure that the city of Buffalo has a reserve fund. We have basically spent all of it over the last few years, especially this year."

It is unclear whether the federal legislation will allow the city to use much of the money as a rainy day fund, although it can use it to pay off borrowing and to replenish coffers that were emptied because of pandemic-related expenses and a drop in tax revenue.

The rules also allow for the city to use the money to address health disparities in minority communities – which U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said should be a priority.

In addition, the money will also allow the city to fix its aging sewer and water systems.

"I'm sure that there are numerous projects like that throughout the city of Buffalo," said North District Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr.

Wyatt noted that the pandemic – which forced Buffalo school children to learn via the internet rather than in the classroom – laid bare the fact that parts of the University District and other poorer sections of the city suffer from poor internet access. 

He said the influx of federal funds could help solve that problem. 

Countywide broadband?

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has been dreaming of a countywide high-speed internet program for years – but thanks to the stimulus bill, he can stop dreaming and start planning.

The county's $178.18 million in federal funds will cover the county's Covid-19-related budget shortfall, which Poloncarz pegged at about $60 million. What's more, he said it will allow the county to rehire some of the 19 people it laid off and re-establish some of the programs it cut as it downsized and abolished 200 open positions because of the Covid-19-related cash crunch.

Moreover, the stimulus bill will bring the county the cash to pay for Poloncarz's Erie Net proposal, which he delayed amid the pandemic. That plan calls for the laying of 350 miles of fiberoptic cable across the county to bring high-speed broadband access to communities that lack it.

The project's planning costs will total between $1 million and $1.5 million, and it will take $15 million to $20 million to lay the cables. 

"I think we've all seen, as a result of Covid-19, what happens when you don't have high speed internet," Poloncarz said. "It's terrible for many different reasons, but families learned it the hard way. When they're doing virtual learning and you don't have high speed internet, you don't have virtual learning for your children."

Higgins noted that improved broadband service is important for job creation, too. He said that he envisioned some of the federal money being used in a jobs program that could lead people to tech careers at Seneca One Tower Technology Hub.

"This is a direct opportunity to help people in underserved communities to get into employment," Higgins said.

Aid for other communities

While Buffalo and Erie County will benefit the most from the federal largesse, all major municipalities will get some money – and maybe even more than they need.

Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joe Emminger was set to propose using some of the town's $42 million in federal funds to rebuild sidewalks, only to hear that sidewalks might not qualify under the bill's spending rules.

"We're going to have a hard time spending $42 million with those restrictions," Emminger said. Even though municipalities will have four years to spend the money, "we're going to have to do some investigative work" to figure out how to do so, he added.

That issue arises in part because Congress based the federal grants not on a local government's deficit, but on the basis of existing federal formulas that steer aid to less wealthy communities. If Congress had based the local aid strictly on budget deficits, Tonawanda wouldn't have gotten any money, given that it ended its budget year with a surplus.

The generosity of the federal aid prompted howls from Republicans. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Senate Republican, told PBS this week that the bill takes "a shotgun approach to this that throws a lot of money out there at a time when every one of those dollars is borrowed."

Local officials, however, don't seem to mind.

The town of Amherst plans to use its federal funds – $15.53 million – to pay back the $6 million it borrowed amid the pandemic and perhaps shore up its reserves, said Supervisor Brian Kulpa.

And Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino wants to use the city's $59.58 million to fill the city's budget hole, which he estimated at several million dollars. Then, like Poloncarz and the Buffalo city officials, Restaino is considering a broadband internet project and other infrastructure improvements.

"We're just very grateful" for the federal funds, he said.

Here's a list of how much each local municipality will receive under the American Rescue Plan (in millions):

Buffalo – $350.05

Erie County – $178.18

Niagara Falls – $59.48

Tonawanda (town) – $42.41

Niagara County – $40.59

Cheektowaga – $26.14

Amherst – $15.53

Hamburg – $10.4

West Seneca – $4.96

Lancaster – $4.75

Clarence – $3.61

North Tonawanda – $3.32

Orchard Park – $3.25

Grand Island – $2.35

Lockport (city) – $2.23

Lockport (town) – $2.18

Wheatfield – $1.98

Lackawanna – $1.94

Evans – $1.77

Lewiston – $1.73

Tonawanda (city) – $1.62

Aurora – $1.51

Elma – $1.29

Alden – $1.09

Newfane – $1.00

Newstead – $0.95

Concord – $0.93

Boston – $0.89

Niagara – $0.88

Eden – $0.83

Royalton – $0.82

Pendleton – $0.75

Porter – $0.72

Collins – $0.69

Wilson – $0.63

Cambria – $0.63

Marilla – $0.59

Hartland – $0.44

North Collins – $0.38

Colden – $0.37

Holland – $0.37

Wales – $0.33

Sardinia – $0.31

Somerset – $0.28

Brant – $0.23

News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this article

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