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Moody's improves county bond rating Mount View closing, PILOT are listed as factors that may allow lower interest rate on borrowing

A Wall Street bond rating firm has upgraded Niagara County's credit rating for the third time in about 18 months, county officials announced Tuesday.

The change by Moody's Investors Service means the county will see lower interest rates when it sells bonds to borrow money, including $4.7 million in bonds for various capital projects to be sold today.

It also signifies a more positive financial outlook for the county and could attract more businesses here, said County Manager Gregory D. Lewis.

Representatives from Moody's said in a statement, "The upgrade reflects ongoing improvement of the county's financial position characterized by growing reserves. The rating also factors the county's substantial tax base with below average wealth levels and low direct debt burden."

Other factors also contributed to the rating increase, according to Moody's -- proceeds from a settlement agreement with the New York Power Authority, the closure of Mount View Health Facility, the payment in lieu of taxes agreement with AES Somerset, continued operations at Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel and the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

Lewis pointed to other figures he said indicate the county's improving financial health.

The proposed 2008 county budget includes a 6.8 percent reduction in the tax levy, thanks to the AES PILOT, and a reduction in spending of more than $9 million, Lewis said.

The average increase in property taxes across the county will be about 5 cents per $1,000 in assessed valuation under the proposed spending plan for next year.

County coffers currently hold $21 million in fund balance.

Moody's shifted the county's rating to A2 from A3, where it had been since June. In July 2006, Moody's dropped its "negative outlook" for county finances.

The $4.7 million in bonds to be sold today will pay for road and bridge repairs. About $500,000 will be used to purchase new equipment. The borrowed funds will also include $1 million for a new public works facility as well as $1.5 million for a centralized campus of county buildings.

In action by the Legislature on Tuesday:

* Lawmakers voted to authorize the layoffs of the remaining work force at Mount View.

The county-owned nursing home has been targeted for closure on Dec. 28. About 160 employees still work at the facility. About two dozen patients still reside there.

Legislators Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, W. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, and Kyle Andrews, D-Wilson, voted against the authorization.

* The Legislature approved a property tax exemption for peacetime veterans.

The discount would cover Cold War personnel, or those who served after World War II until the early 1990s.

The exemption, which is already provided by the state and federal governments, will become available in 2009. The move, which had been opposed by the county manager's office, would shift about $200,000 to other taxpayers.

The measure was sponsored by Legislator Harry Apolito, D-Lockport, who was not in attendance Tuesday.

City of Lockport resident and U.S. Army veteran Bill Schultz told legislators all veterans made sacrifices no matter when they served, and any exemption would not be a burden to the county.

"We're taxpayers, too," Schultz said.

* The Legislature approved an $86,042 settlement with former corrections officer Derrick Brevard who said he was fired without a proper hearing after allegedly threatening two superior officers.

* Legislators also passed a resolution opposing proposed increases to tolls on the state Thruway.

e-mail: abesecker@buffnews.com

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