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Legislators table bid to stop taxing water line

A different year so far has brought the no results for the City of Lockport's request that the county stop assessing property taxes on the city's water supply line.

The County Legislature's Administration Committee, which defeated such a proposal from Legislator Glenn S. Aronow, R-Lockport, last fall, voted, 5-2, Tuesday to table a new request from Legislator Harry J. Apolito, D-Lockport.

Mayor Michael W. Tucker and current and former department heads attended the meeting to urge passage, but Majority Leader Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda, moved to table it. Apolito's only support came from Legislator Sean J. O'Connor, D-Niagara Falls. Apolito vowed to bring the measure back at the next meeting, Feb. 28.

Apolito said Lockport was charged $230,921 in taxes this year, including $62,000 by the county, for a 10-foot-wide strip of land 13 miles long that carries the city's water main from the Niagara River in North Tonawanda.

The Town of Lockport assesses the property at $100 and doesn't tax it, but the City of North Tonawanda, the towns of Pendleton and Wheatfield, and the North Tonawanda, Niagara-Wheatfield and Starpoint school districts aren't so kind.

Apolito said the county taxes alone have gone up 71 percent in the last five years.

Tax rates have risen, but County Attorney Claude A. Joerg attributed most of the increase to municipal assessors, who, except in the Town of Lockport, have raised the assessed value of the strip.

Legislator Gerald K. Farnham, R-Town of Lockport, defended Pendleton, which is in his district. He charged that the city owns land off Meyer Road that it doesn't need for the water line, yet pays taxes on it. He urged Tucker to sell that land.

Farnham also said the water line interfered with town efforts to reuse a former railroad right of way it bought in the 1990s.

He, likewise, charged that leaks in the line created wetlands, especially between Mapleton and Killian roads, preventing owners from using land on which they pay taxes.

City Utilities Director Michael W. Diel said the raw water line was repaired in the 1990s and doesn't leak, but the pipes in the city itself leak so badly that, from 2001 to 2004, an average of 41 percent of the water pumped never got to customers.

"It's our water; it doesn't cost us anything," Tucker said.

Diel said, "We just raised [water] rates again, and we got hit with a 5 percent increase in taxes. I can't raise the rates enough to repair the lines. It's [almost] $300,000 in my budget to pay the taxes. . . . The water fund is $500,000 in the hole."

"At present, the city supplies water to the Niagara County Water District, especially in the summer when it's dry," noted Peter J. Sharkey, former city water superintendent.

Tucker noted that, under state law, the city cannot tax the county for buildings worth $5 million. Farnham retorted that the presence of county workers and customers increases sales tax revenue for the city.

Real Property Tax Director William F. Budde Jr. said if the county granted Lockport relief on the water line, the county property tax rate would rise three-quarters of 1 cent per $1,000 of assessed valuation. "It doesn't cost the taxing jurisdiction anything. If you reduce the burden for someone, you raise it for everyone else," Budde said.

"It's a lot to digest," Needler said, explaining his motion to table the matter. His city, North Tonawanda, collects the most taxes from the water line, about $65,000 this year.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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