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County tax hike may be in store for 2009 Falling sales tax income and state budget gaps suggest problems

Chris Collins and his strategists are thinking the unthinkable:

A property tax increase for 2009.

The Erie County executive had once drafted a four-year financial plan that kept the property tax rate flat for next year. Then the sales tax bonanza cooled and billion-dollar gaps opened in the state budget, giving counties the loud hint to brace themselves.

Collins' aides are mum on whether he will call for a property tax increase when he unveils his 2009 budget Monday. But telltale puffs of smoke have emerged from the Rath County Office Building's top floor:

* County administrators by Oct. 1 must give the comptroller their estimates for the coming year's revenue -- the income that will feed more than $1 billion in spending. Collins' budget team provided estimates for most major revenues but not for property taxes, which it could have done easily if the tax rate were remaining unchanged..

* Budget Director Gregory G. Gach, who recently warned of the county's precarious reliance on sales tax income, said Tuesday that he could not promise property owners will be spared a tax increase next year.

As a candidate in 2007, Collins had cast his opponent, Democrat James P. Keane, as the type of career politician who delivers "tax increases, wasteful spending and patronage," implying Collins would not raise taxes.

But his first budget might dip deeper into taxpayers' pockets, as leaders in other counties are doing. Schenectady, Rockland and Cayuga counties are among those with tax increases on the table for 2009.

Erie County's property tax rate, about $5 for every $1,000 of assessment, is low when compared with other counties in New York State. Former County Executive Joel A. Giambra had forecast that Erie County could keep its rate flat and let rising assessments generate the new money that would balance budgets through the decade.

Collins followed that strategy when he wrote up a four-year forecast back in May. A hike in the tax rate now would create a dramatic departure from Collins' outlook just five months ago.

The state-appointed control board rejected his forecast for several reasons, as it had done with Giambra's financial plans. When Collins presents his budget next week, he also will give the control board a new four-year forecast that will reveal his vision for the property tax.

In recent years, Erie County has been able to keep its property tax rate lower because it levies the highest sales tax in New York State, 4.75 percent on top of the state's 4 percent.

Last year's sales tax income generated a windfall, some $10 million more than budgeted. Gasoline prices had risen sharply, and Canadians wielding stronger Canadian dollars shopped here, where the sales tax looked like a bargain compared with Ontario's.

The trend continued until early this year, when sales tax income cooled in the second quarter. The county is still expected to collect the $380 million in sales tax income it budgeted for its own purposes for this year -- compared with $200 million in property taxes. But Gach, like Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, worries about the county's reliance on sales tax collections, which rise and fall based on factors outside the control of county leaders.

Gach had said he would be keeping even more jobs vacant and cordoning off some available money to make sure this year ends with a surplus. He also told the Legislature that one of his goals in drafting the 2009 budget was "to separate the critical functions of county government from those we cannot afford," a warning that they might see cuts in programs.

Then, in his Oct. 1 revenue estimates for the comptroller, Gach conservatively forecast sales taxes and state aid, figuring no growth in either category. The Canadian dollar has slipped against U.S. currency, and state leaders are cutting back in the middle of their fiscal year, which might lead to cuts in aid to counties to carry out certain programs.

As for the missing property tax estimate, Gach says he has given the comptroller all of the estimates required by law.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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