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GARBAGE FEE HIKE IN BUDGET IS UNPOPULAR

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's "good news budget" is getting mixed reviews in City Hall as officials begin dissecting a plan that would hold the line on the property tax levy and cut most tax bills by 3.4 percent.

Some Common Council members are looking for ways to reduce or possibly eliminate a proposed 8 percent increase in the garbage user fee.

Meanwhile, the city's fiscal watchdog praised Masiello's $384.5 million spending plan, claiming it shows that Buffalo is "turning the corner." Comptroller Andrew A. SanFilippo said Buffalo will not have to borrow money to cover a deficit for the first time since a state control board stepped in two years ago to oversee city finances.

"Some people depict the city of Buffalo as having one foot in the grave, and one foot on a banana peel, and this just isn't the case," said SanFilippo.

He added that he is pleased the spending plan would result in slight reductions in tax bills for about 90 percent of all property owners, the first rate decrease in eight years. The city would still collect as much property tax revenue in the new fiscal year as it did this year. But 10 percent of all properties witnessed recent assessment increases, driving up property values by $178 million. The city's expanding tax base would allow for a slight reduction in rates without reducing the levy -- the amount of money Buffalo raises from property taxes.

The Common Council will begin budget hearings Monday, and it must make any additions or deletions to Masiello's plan by May 22. Already, the proposed increase in the garbage user fee is emerging as one of the more contentious issues.

Council members Bonnie E. Russell of University and Richard A. Fontana of Lovejoy are among those who have indicated they don't intend to support another fee increase. The charge for garbage collection went up 20 percent last year, and has increased by about 40 percent since 2003. Another 8 percent increase would cost a homeowner with the largest tote an additional $12.61 a year.

"Some Council members are clearly uncomfortable with supporting a budget that includes any increase in the user fee," said Majority Leader Marc A. Coppola. "If there has to be any increase at all, we want to try to get it lower."

But Finance Commissioner James B. Milroy said the Council will be hard-pressed to slash spending in garbage operations by $1.2 million, the amount of money that would be needed to avoid a fee increase.

"Everything that we could cut from the garbage enterprise fund has already been cut," said Milroy. "I've already told the Council there's no better cutter than me."

SanFilippo said lawmakers must realize that the user fee increase is being triggered by Erie County's decision to return to Buffalo operation of a garbage transfer station.

"It's not like the fee increase is the result of gross mismanagement. We're talking about an additional expense."

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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