An unprecedented $9 million reduction in spending and an average increase in the property tax rate of a nickel per $1,000 of assessed valuation highlight Niagara County Manager Gregory D. Lewis' proposed budget for next year.
But the average tax rate was calculated so differently from previous years that comparisons appear meaningless.
"That's an abstract thing," Lewis said. "It's not reality."
The reason lies in the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, agreement that AES Corp., the county's largest taxpayer, received last year from the county Industrial Development Agency for its generating plant in Somerset.
That arrangement will kick in next year, removing the plant's assessed valuation of $668.4 million from the tax base used to figure the tax rate.
While AES' PILOT payments to the county of about $5 million next year count as revenue, they technically don't count as taxes. So the amount to be collected in property taxes from everyone else is $5 million, or 6.8 percent, lower than the this year's figure.
"If we hadn't had the Somerset thing, we would have had a zero (tax levy change)," Lewis said.
The impact on individual tax bills will depend on location. Countywide, taxes on a home assessed a $100,000 would increase by $5. But each town and city has a different equalization rate based on how closely the state thinks its tax rolls are to full market value.
Although exact figures weren't available Thursday, Lewis said William F. Budde Jr., county director of real property tax services, had told him tax bills were most likely to increase in the Town of Niagara, Somerset, Royalton, Wilson, North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls.
"We are not responsible for what the assessors do. The county doesn't do assessing," Lewis said. "What the county can do is work its budget."
The $301.4 million budget is $9.1 million less than this year's and could go even lower if the County Legislature deletes every job at Mount View Health Facility. To meet a deadline for printing the budget, Lewis cut only 54 jobs at the soon-to-be-closed county nursing home.
The Legislature, however, is expected to vote Tuesday to lay off everyone still employed as soon as Lewis decides those 160 jobs no longer are needed.
As of Thursday, the number of patients had declined to 24.
Next year's budget includes six months' funding for Mount View, but Lewis said the facility probably will close before the end of this year.
The other major factors in reducing spending were projected lower outlays for electricity resulting from the county's allocation of low-cost power under the relicensing deal for the Niagara Power Project, a reduction in contributions to the public employees' pension fund and cost controls on employee health insurance resulting from a single-carrier plan most county unions have accepted.
"Two out of three of those are direct results of the agenda the County Legislature, Greg Lewis and (Budget Director) Dan Huntington carried out," said Legislator Jason J. Murgia, D-Niagara Falls, chairman of the Administration Committee.
Lewis' budget abolishes nine vacant jobs in addition to those at Mount View, but it would create eight new ones: three corrections officers, two probation officers, a Sheriff's Office dispatcher, an environmental science coordinator and a director of homeland defense and emergency management.
The homeland defense job, to be filled by a four-year appointment by the county manager, would be above that of James C. Volkosh, who would keep his position and current salary as emergency management director and fire coordinator.
The new person would coordinate homeland security spending and programs while seeking more funds from Albany and Washington, Lewis said.
"I'm not really sold on that," said Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls. "The federal government has someone to direct homeland security. The state has someone to direct homeland security. I don't think the county needs someone to direct that, too."
"I don't want any political hacks in that position," he also warned.
The environmental job is part of the county's state-mandated solid waste and recycling plan that the Department of Environmental Conservation finally approved this year after more than 20 years of hassle.
The state had sought additional guards after an analysis concluded the county didn't have enough staffing at its jail. Lewis said three more will be added in 2009. The probation officers, to be state-funded, were added because of an increasing caseload, Lewis said, while call volume requires the extra dispatcher.
County Attorney Claude A. Joerg and Public Defender David J. Farrugia, both Republican patronage appointees of the Legislature, would receive 7.7 percent raises to $60,286 for Joerg and $40,715 for Farrugia.
Lewis will meet with small groups of legislators next week to discuss the budget, and work sessions for the full Legislature are scheduled for Nov. 26 and 27. A public hearing will be held Dec. 4, and the Legislature is expected to vote Dec. 18.