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Mayor Anthony M. Masiello will unveil a spending plan soon that will likely hold the line on the property tax levy but will call for a double-digit increase in the garbage user fee, The Buffalo News has learned.

The unpopular fee could go up by anywhere from 10 to 15 percent July 1, sources confirmed Sunday.

There would be few, if any, layoffs in the proposed budget, but many vacant jobs would be cut.

City officials continued working this weekend on a plan that must be submitted to the Common Council and the state financial control board by May 2. They cautioned that there are still key issues in play but said that they are confident the budget will call for no increase in the tax levy -- the money Buffalo gets from property taxes.

"You'll see the fruits of some very difficult decisions we've had to make, but they were the right decisions," Masiello said.

He was alluding to efforts that included shrinking the size of the city's work force from more than 2,800 two years ago to just over 2,500 as of last week.

Still, some property owners face likely increases in their bills. Nearly 10,000 properties saw their assessments go up this year as part of an annual revaluation program.

Other variables that could affect tax rates are the state's complex equalization formulas that try to distribute tax burdens fairly among municipalities. The formulas, which will be released this month, also take into account shifts in tax burdens between residential and commercial properties.

The spending plan will likely contain one highly controversial component -- another increase in the garbage user fee. Masiello blamed the expected increase on a decision by the county to turn back operations of a garbage-handling facility on South Ogden Street to the city.

The county has been operating the city's East Side Transfer Station since 2001. The city recently received notice that the cash-strapped county will soon turn back the facility to the city, Masiello said Sunday.

"Quite frankly, we wouldn't need an increase in the user fee if this wasn't happening," Masiello said. "It's unfortunate, but we'll have to make it work."

The garbage user fee will probably have to go up by at least 10 percent, city Finance Commissioner James B. Milroy said after he finished a Sunday number-crunching session. He added that the increase could be as high as 15 percent.

"It looks like it will cost (the city) about $1.8 million a year to run the transfer station," Milroy said.

City officials have increased the user fee by about 40 percent since 2003, the year in which the control board was created to help chart a plan fiscal stability plan for Buffalo. Last summer, the charge for garbage collection went up by 20 percent.

Property owners pay user fees ranging from about $170 to $200 a year, depending on the size of the garbage tote. If Milroy's initial estimates hold, user fee bills could increase by $17 to $30 a year.

The Common Council will have about three weeks to make changes to Masiello's spending plan once it is submitted, and Budget Committee Chairman Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr. said that it is premature to predict whether lawmakers will go along with a higher user fee.

Bonifacio said that one option might involve trying to lower operating costs at the transfer station by handling garbage from neighboring municipalities.

But Bonifacio did not rule out supporting a higher user fee.

"I don't have a problem raising fees if it means saving vital services," he said.

Buffalo's fiscal outlook has brightened as a result of budget developments in Albany. The state is expected to provide cities with additional aid, including an extra $13 million for Buffalo.

There was a behind-the-scenes struggle earlier this year between city officials and the control board over whether all of the additional aid should be used to fund services, or held in reserve.

The Masiello administration and Council members insisted that the state money is being provided to help cities keep taxes down, not to build reserves, as some control board officials had advocated.

The State Legislature passed a budget March 31, and Milroy said the plan does not include language that would prevent the city from using the extra money to pay for services.


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