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Shared sales tax demand reduced Assembly Democrats get key Senate backer

Assembly Democrats are scaling back their demand by insisting Erie County share an additional $12.5 million -- not $30 million -- of sales tax income starting in 2007, and they have a key state senator on board to get the offer through both houses.

However, there were no assurances late Wednesday that county lawmakers will embrace the compromise when they meet at 2 p.m. today. In fact, the stalemate was growing more complex, meaning County Hall could find itself in a replay of last year's budget crisis.

The Democrats who control the County Legislature were meeting into the evening Wednesday, but staff and participants said there were not eight members present in any one room to create a quorum. Without a quorum of eight, they closed their discussions to public view.

One county lawmaker wants to create a task force representing several layers of government. Its members would determine whether services can be shared and dollars saved to avoid distributing more sales tax proceeds to cities, towns and villages -- and to someday free taxpayers from the 21-year-old "temporary" sales tax penny.

"I'm from the school that believes the temporary penny should never be memorialized, or fixed," said West Seneca Democrat Cynthia Locklear, whose measure has three co-sponsors.

A total of six steadfast supporters for her proposal can block the Legislature from forming the two-thirds majority -- 10 members -- needed to affect the sales tax in any way, or to accept the Assembly's new offer.

Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, put the compromise in play Wednesday. Weeks ago, Tokasz had said Erie County officials must agree to share about $30 million of sales tax income from the temporary penny in 2007 if they wanted the penny renewed for 2006. He called it a question of fairness as a way to settle a debate that has roiled since 1985.

Erie County does share with schools, cities, towns and villages the millions of dollars generated by three of its sales tax pennies. But it does not share the proceeds of the eighth penny, first added in 1985 to close a budget deficit that year. City of Buffalo officials complain they have been denied about $500 million over the years.

Supporting a proposal by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, the Association of Erie County Governments voted 24-8 Wednesday to back Tokasz's legislation to share the extra penny. The association is made up of elected leaders of the county's cities, towns and villages.

Tokasz's amended bill also creates a task force on "Revenue Sharing and Regional Cost Sharing." But in stressing the need for "an equitable distribution" of sales tax money, it forces county officials to surrender $12.5 million in 2007. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Dale M. Volker, R-Depew.

Tokasz promised he would not change his offer, which also is sponsored by Buffalo Democrats Sam Hoyt, Crystal D. Peoples and Mark J.F. Schroeder.

Tokasz called it a line in the sand for county lawmakers and the Giambra administration.

"If some county legislators don't want to vote for this, there's not going to be an alternative," he said.

Asked why, he said, "Because I think, and the sponsors think, that it's fair and equitable."

Tokasz said he negotiated the changes with Volker and some leaders of the County Legislature. "I don't know if there's 10 votes," he said of the County Legislature. "If there's not 10 votes, I don't know what they're going to do in terms of renewing the 1 percent."

Volker said the revenue must be shared.

"We're one of the only counties in the state that doesn't do some sort of sharing. It is fair because the towns, particularly, do a lot of services for people," he said. "The county doesn't really provide a lot of the services, other than for the city."

In the end, Volker said he believes the county will be made whole -- with some sort of state aid -- for the revenue it gives cities and towns.

"We'll find a way," he said, explaining that finding $12.5 million in a state budget that exceeds $100 billion is "comparatively" not a heavy lift.

Locklear said she didn't like the proposal because it forces Erie County to give up the $12.5 million before the task force can do its work.

County Executive Joel A. Giambra agrees.

At a news conference Wednesday, Giambra said the county already faces a deficit for 2007 because it is unlikely to save $40 million -- a hurdle to balancing next year's budget even before Albany lawmakers leveled their demand. He called Locklear's proposal "a very sound, lucid way in which to move this discussion forward."

Giambra said "it goes against my grain" to give other local governments money so services become even more decentralized and taxpayers finance redundancy.

"It's bad public policy," he said.

Albany Bureau reporter Tom Precious contributed to this report.


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