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'Welcome' sign not so welcome Privately financed billboard tax message is really down on Niagara County's levies LEE J. BORDELEAU: "I obviously couldn't put as much information on it as I wanted."

Lockport stockbroker Lee J. Bordeleau has followed through on his plan to erect a billboard declaring that Niagara County has the nation's highest taxes.

Bordeleau's billboard on South Transit Road (Route 78), just north of the border with Erie County, will be up for two months.

It states: "Welcome to Niagara County. We're # 1. We pay the highest property taxes in the United States. Too many government agencies employing too many workers, making too much money! Help us free Niagara! Go to FreeNewYork.org."

The Web site is Internet headquarters for a small-government group that arose out of Buffalo attorney James Ostrowski's Free Buffalo movement.
Bordeleau said the billboard had to omit a lot of what he wanted to write. Even a billboard has its limits.
"When I gave the copy to Lamar [the billboard company], they said it was too muddy. Even now, when you drive up Transit at 50 mph, you can't read half of it. I obviously couldn't put as much information on it as I wanted."
Bordeleau's original plan, unveiled in November, was to list the names of elected officials. That fell by the wayside.
He put up $500 of his own money and sought donations for the remainder of the cost. He ended up with $2,500 and a two-month billboard rental.

He had hoped for more money, a longer term for the sign and perhaps enough to erect the same billboard on Niagara Falls Boulevard leading to Niagara Falls.
The claim that Niagara County has the nation's highest property taxes came from one of several charts in a study released last fall by the Tax Foundation, a national nonprofit group.
It said that Niagara County has the highest property taxes of any county with a population of 65,000 or more, expressed in terms of how big the property tax bill is as a percentage of home value.
By that measure, the median sum of school, county and municipal taxes -- $2,576 -- was 2.81 percent of home value. The real estate values were calculated using responses by homeowners to a 2005 U.S. Census Bureau survey, not the actual figures on assessment rolls.

The percentage might have as much to do with low real estate values as it does with high taxes. The study listed Niagara County's median home value at $91,600 -- the lowest in the nation of the 775 counties with populations greater than 65,000.
Other charts in the Tax Foundation study show Niagara County nowhere near the top in property taxes. Niagara ranks 137th in the nation and 20th in the state in the study's ranking of median residential property taxes actually paid.
By a third measure -- property taxes as a percentage of the homeowner's income -- Niagara County was 64th in the nation.
School taxes account for 55 percent of the property taxes paid in Niagara County, according to the county real property tax office. County taxes constitute 21 percent of the overall load, while municipal and special district taxes make up the rest.
Niagara County has 12 towns, five villages, three cities, 10 school districts and water, sewer and refuse disposal districts that cover parts of the county.
"There's a simple solution to the problem. There's too much government," said Bordeleau, who runs the Lockport office of the Raymond James investment firm.
County Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster didn't approve of the billboard, especially near a main entrance to the county.
"I don't think it's a good way to get your point across. If the idea is to make Niagara County a better place to live, I don't think that's the way to do it," said Burmaster, a Ransomville Republican. "That's not putting our best foot forward."
City of Lockport Mayor Michael W. Tucker said, "People can do whatever they want to do as long as they're not hurting anyone. Whether it hurts or helps remains to be seen. I really don't have an opinion on that."
But Town of Lockport Supervisor Marc R. Smith said, "I applaud Mr. Bordeleau. All of us in New York State need to do a better job and take a critical look at how we provide services."
Smith, in whose territory the billboard stands, added, "I want to be part of the solution, not the problem. Things are what they are. We're not going to bury our heads in the sand. The Town Board hasn't taken that approach."
He said Niagara County's population, 220,000 in the 2000 census, is "the size of a medium-sized city." He said it follows that all government functions could be centralized in the Lockport area, near the middle of the county.
"If you had a central court system, a central police agency, a central school district, nobody's more than 20 minutes away," he said. "There's this duplication and duplication and duplication. It's feeding a lot of families, but a lot of families are leaving because they can't do business," Bordeleau said. "Nobody has a vested interest in fixing it."

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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