Niagara County Manager Gregory D. Lewis says he is working on a 2009 budget with a property tax levy increase of no more than 3 percent.
Not good enough, say leaders of the County Legislature's Republican-led majority, who vowed to avoid any tax increase next year.
"I can assure you, he's going to be told to make it lower," said Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, who said he expects Lewis will soon start meeting with legislators in small groups regarding the budget.
"The tax rate is the best measure of our performance. We intend to lower the tax rate again. We expect to lower the tax rate again," said Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport.
Last December, legislators managed to reduce the property tax rate and the total levy from the previous year's figures.
Lewis said state aid reductions have made balancing the budget harder than usual. The county was hit with a 2 percent reduction and a subsequent 6 percent reduction from Albany.
It can be hard to track, Lewis said, because the county doesn't receive aid from the state in just one check. State aid comes to the county in bits and pieces, earmarked for different uses.
"The cuts were in different programs. It's a puzzle piece," Lewis said. "We're questioning every department, every source of funding they get from the state, to see if there's a cut. The lack of budgetary integration at the state [level] creates a cloud of clutter."
Lewis told department heads to limit their spending requests to a 3 percent increase in net county cost, but when the requests came in, the increase was more than 5 percent.
Lewis said he has begun meeting with each department head individually, going over every line and every job in their budgets to see where reductions can be made.
"The Legislature will have a policy decision," said Lewis, whose proposed budget is to be released about Nov. 14. The Legislature has until Dec. 20 to make changes and pass a final version.
Updegrove said it was his understanding that the $2 million the county received this year from the Industrial Development Agency, a lump-sum repayment of 20-year-old loans, is not yet included in the 2009 budget as revenue. He vowed it will be applied toward tax reduction.