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The Cattaraugus County Legislature's Republican majority leaders, reacting Wednesday to a tentative 2005 budget and its projected 16.97 percent hike in the tax levy, failed by one vote in a bid to raise the countywide sales tax to 9 percent.

After more than 30 minutes of debate -- described by County Budget Director Jack Searles as "animated and heated" -- legislation for a .75 percent sales tax increase was put to a vote by its sponsors, Chairman Gerard "Jess" Fitzpatrick, R-Ellicottville; Finance Committee Chairwoman Crystal J. Abers, R-South Dayton; and Finance Committee member John K. Baker, R-Olean.

The effort could have launched a lengthy petitioning process to the state to bring another $5 million in revenues to the county's coffers sometime after 2006. But it failed by one vote to reach the required two-thirds majority or 15 votes of the 21-member body.

The tentative 2005 budget's appropriations show an increase of about $7.4 million, totaling $171.2 million. Layoffs are part of the plan, with 25 full-time and 11 part-time positions mostly in the area of nursing home support staff earmarked for elimination. In other areas, one full-time and 22 part-time jobs could be added, for a net savings of $1.006 million and a net full-time equivalent work force reduction of 18.5 workers.

A $40.6 million tax levy is recommended to supplement the $130.6 million expected from all revenue sources if the budget is adopted sometime between the Nov. 23 target date for the legislative vote and the Dec. 20 deadline imposed by state law for a new budget to be adopted.

Comparative countywide tax data on that levy, provided to legislators, shows an expected tax rate of $19.96 per $1,000 of assessed value, a 4.56 percent increase on the projected $2.035 billion assessment value overall.

Taxpayers were assessed a $19.09 per $1,000 rate in 2004 on a $1.8 million assessment. Tax rate comparisons for towns and cities range from a 52 percent drop in Allegany to increases topping 30 percent in the towns of Ischua and Leon. Most residents of towns with property assessments at 100 percent will see tax rate increases of about 100 percent.

County officials say some of the escalating tax levy is due to three factors: the county's Medicaid bill approaching $15.65 million, nursing home subsidies topping $1.6 million and retirement contributions of $675,203.

According to a budget summary provided to the Legislature, Medicaid will soak up $346 of the the average taxpayer's bill on a home valued at $45,000.

Searles said he expects some reduction in the tax levy and the budget to be trimmed during committee reviews, which will begin Friday with the Public Works Committee.

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