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7 FROM GOP OPPOSE PROPERTY TAX HIKE
LEGISLATORS VOW TO BLOCK OPTION IN BUDGET CRISIS

Read their Republican lips: No new Erie County property taxes.

One by one, members of the Erie County Legislature's seven-member GOP minority stood in front of news microphones Saturday at County Hall and declared they would block any proposal to increase property taxes.

"There are seven Republicans who will stand together and say under no circumstances will there be a property tax hike," said Legislator Charles M. Swanick, R-Kenmore. "We want to be very clear that property taxes are not part of the discussions to change the 'red budget.' "

Republican County Executive Joel A. Giambra's "red budget" would close many county services and lay off more than 3,000 employees but would avoid raising property taxes.

Giambra's "green budget" would increase the sales tax rate to 9.25 percent and raise fees to eliminate a $130 million projected deficit for next year in order to avoid cuts that would see an end to library services, road patrols by sheriff's deputies and auto bureaus -- to name just a few of the red budget's provisions.

Legislator Barry A. Weinstein, R-Amherst, said Republicans have company when it comes to opposing a property tax increase.

"We've identified several like-minded Democrats," Weinstein said in reinforcing the point that a property tax increase is off the table when legislators begin negotiations with Giambra and local state lawmakers to craft a spending plan by the Dec. 7 deadline.

Taking an even tougher stand, Legislators Elise M. Cusack, R-Amherst, and Denise E. Marshall, R-Lancaster, said they would oppose any tax increase, including Giambra's proposal to raise the sales tax by 1 percentage point.

"We have celebrated for almost a year now the arrival of Geico into our community and the hundreds of jobs they have brought. A property tax increase, as being proposed by some of the Democratic legislators, would make our region less attractive to prospective businesses. We would not be competitive," Cusack said.

Legislature Democrats on Saturday called on Giambra and Republican county lawmakers to help them resolve the county budget crisis. They contended that the proposed budget has been dropped on their doorstep with few reasonable recommendations.

"While the red budget looms, Republican legislators continue to look for political cover," said Legislator Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, chairman of the Finance and Management Committee. "Rather than standing up and putting forth politically safe statements about what they are not going to do, they should be standing up and offering meaningful, long-term, realistic solutions."

Without compromise by Giambra and GOP lawmakers, said Legislature Chairman George A. Holt Jr., D-Buffalo, "there are clearly not enough votes for either the property tax or sales tax."

Some GOP legislators have said they would consider increasing the sales tax if the state and county implement permanent reductions in spending practices.

The changes include capping the county's state-mandated Medicaid costs, which will hit $204 million next year, reforming Medicaid to provide relief to counties across the state and shrinking the size of Erie County government.

"From this crisis can come a historic opportunity to make true structural reforms in the way our government operates," said Legislator Steven P. McCarville, R-Orchard Park. "What I'm looking at are responsible across-the-board budget cuts of approximately 20 percent and 5 to 10 percent reductions in the salaries of non-union managers."

Such cuts, he said, would put county workers on notice that "we have to do more with less."

Minority Leader Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Clarence, said common sense is needed to strike a balance between providing services and what the county can afford. "We're going to go out and listen to what the public has to say," he said. "The other side is that there is going to be an additional revenue."

Raising the sales tax, Weinstein said, can only be considered if the state is willing to rein in Medicaid costs. If that does not happen, the county would find itself in the same financial sinkhole year after year, he said.

Legislator Jeanne Z. Chase, R-Eden, borrowed images from the Iraq War to illustrate the crisis.

"I liken it to the insurgents in Iraq who are bombing their own buildings and people because they don't like us," Chase said. "We don't like Albany's unfunded mandates, but we'll take it out on constituents with higher property taxes, and that's not acceptable."

The first hearing on the budget is set for 6 p.m. Monday in the Lancaster Middle School auditorium. The second is at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Erie Community College City Campus. The third is at 6 p.m. Nov. 29 at ECC's South Campus, and the last is at 6 p.m. Nov. 30 in the Clarence Public Library.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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