LOCKPORT – Richard E. Updegrove, the leader of the Republican majority in the Niagara County Legislature, said Thursday that he wants to use the county’s surplus funds to deliver a property tax cut for 2014.
His opposite number on the Democratic side derided the announcement as a shortsighted “election scam.”
“I think it’s a desperate move for his re-election. He must have seen a poll that shows he’s behind,” said Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls.
“The politics behind it say, ‘Good today, bad tomorrow,’ ” said Updegrove’s opponent, Lockport School Board member Anthony J. Molinaro. Molinaro issued a statement accusing Updegrove of an “election-year scheme to provide a one-year reprieve by spending down our reserve funds [that] will put Niagara County on the same fiscally irresponsible path as the City of Lockport.”
The State Comptroller’s Office lists Lockport as “fiscally stressed” because of low surpluses and high personnel costs. State auditors are helping the city prepare its 2014 budget.
But county Budget Director Daniel R. Huntington said the administration is regarding the announcement from Updegrove, R-Lockport, as an order to use all available surplus funds in the proposed budget County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz will disclose on Nov. 15.
“It was sent to the county manager as a memo. We consider it a directive,” Huntington said.
He said the county has $12.45 million available to be placed in the general fund budget to reduce taxes. That’s the amount of surplus left after exempting some under the county’s so-called “6 percent rule.” A policy adopted a decade ago requires a surplus equal to 6 percent of the previous year’s spending total to be preserved every year.
“We’re not proposing to use our fund balance, which is 6 percent of the budget,” Updegrove said. “I would expect that any surplus beyond our fund balance would be used to reduce taxes. It’s my understanding there is going to be a surplus. Our first priority is to reduce taxes.”
“If you do this, how are you going to make it up?” Virtuoso asked. “You’ll have to raise taxes next year.”
Updegrove said the Legislature majority will “look at our fiduciary responsibilities,” but he said increasing sales tax revenues and new and expanded businesses aided by the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency make lower property taxes feasible.
He said the amount of the tax cut “has yet to be determined” and is not tied to decisions on county personnel numbers.
Virtuoso said he thinks Updegrove is on the wrong track.
“The way to lower the budget is to cut expenses and eliminate political patronage positions, which we have proposed every year and which he has always voted against,” Virtuoso said.
“Updegrove had the opportunity to cut taxes for all of Niagara County last year, but he chose to protect two $90,000-a-year Republican patronage jobs over the county taxpayers he represents,” Molinaro charged. “Instead of eliminating unnecessary positions, such as the legislative clerk and public information officer, he wants to raid surplus funds which will put us in the same untenable situation as the City of Lockport.”