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Phaseout OK'd for tax on home heating fuel

After much debate Wednesday night, the Chautauqua County Legislature approved a two-year phaseout of the local tax on home heating fuel.

The vote was 14-9, with Legislators Tina M. Hallquist and Scot W. Stutzman of the Conservative and Independence parties, respectively, joining Democrats in voting yes. All Republican legislators voted no, and the measure faces a likely veto by County Executive Gregory J. Edwards.

New York's 62 counties have had the option of eliminating the 4.25 percent tax since 1979. Chautauqua is one of only 19 counties that still have the tax in place. Under the proposal approved Wednesday, the heating fuel tax would be reduced to 2 percent on Dec. 1 and be eliminated as of December 2007.

Debate centered on giving homeowners a break on their heating bills versus the potential impact on county and local government finances.

Democratic Majority Leader Charles Cornell, who introduced the resolution, said, "It is wrong to tax people for one of life's basic necessities."

Hallquist said she was torn on the issue because she favors tax cuts for her constituents. She said she was concerned that this could lead to tax increases elsewhere.

"What concerned me is that every single one that I spoke to, the first words out of their mouths were, 'But where is it going to come from later? Where are they going to tax us later?' "

Republicans questioned the rush to eliminate the tax this year. Republican Minority Leader Fred Croscut felt it should have been part of 2007 budget deliberations.

Meanwhile, Edwards said he would likely veto the phaseout of the fuel tax.

Prior to the vote, Edwards relayed the concerns of Jamestown Mayor Samuel Teresi and Dunkirk Mayor Richard L. Frey that both cities stand to lose a large chunk of revenues, and would likely have to replace those losses with increased property taxes.

Edwards said he has been looking into the potential impact and thinks that there needs to be more discussion.

"I think everyone supports tax reduction; we have to do that," Edwards said. "But to do it in this fashion, potentially risking a raise in the property tax, especially in the City of Jamestown and Dunkirk, I think is wrong. We have to do it comprehensively."

Legislature Chairman Keith D. Ahlstrom, a Democrat, was upset by what he believed were eleventh-hour pleas aimed at shooting down a tax cut. Ahlstrom argued that it was purely political -- because the Republicans had not proposed it first.

Democratic Legislator Maria Kindberg of Jamestown was upset with city lawmakers, especially Teresi, because the proposal had been discussed in public for about two months.

Jamestown Councilman Anthony J. Dolce, who attended Wednesday's meeting, said they had not been consulted on the proposal, and urged lawmakers to delay the vote.

Kindberg said the proposal has been public for about two months.

"City legislators have fought for the City of Jamestown; have fought to have this Legislature and this county assume responsibilities that they once held, at great cost to the county, with no thanks from the municipalities," Kindberg said

If Edwards vetoes the measure, Ahlstrom said, there would not likely be the 17 votes needed for an override. That, he said, would be "disappointing."

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