LOCKPORT - The Niagara County Legislature passed a 2017 budget Tuesday night featuring the lowest average property tax rate of the 21st century.
But it could have been lower.
The Republican-controlled Legislature rejected proposals from the Democratic minority for more than $1 million in further tax reductions. They were defeated on an 11-4 party-line vote. The budget then passed 12-3, with Legislator Jason A. Zona, D-Niagara Falls, joining the Republicans in voting yes.
The $338.8 million budget - a year-to-year spending reduction of $579,000 - features an average tax rate of $7.27 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. That's down 11 cents from this year, producing an $11 property tax cut for the owner of a $100,000 home assessed at full market value.
However, only in the Town of Lockport are assessments at full market value, and county tax rates are actually dropping only in Niagara Falls and the towns of Lockport, Newfane, Wilson and Niagara.
The 2017 rates are:
Cambria, $8.08 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, up 22 cents; Hartland, $7.42, up 3 cents; Lewiston, $10.24, up 12 cents; City of Lockport, $7.91, up 44 cents; Town of Lockport; $7.28, down 12 cents; Newfane, $8.17, down 4 cents; Town of Niagara, $13.03, down 45 cents.
Also, Niagara Falls, $8.57, down 24 cents; North Tonawanda, $8.40, up 24 cents; Pendleton, $8.26, up 6 cents; Porter, $8.87, up 47 cents; Royalton, $7.42, up 3 cents; Somerset, $8, up 45 cents; Wheatfield, $11.55, up 18 cents; and Wilson, $8.56, down 24 cents.
The total amount collected in property taxes will rise 1.63 percent, which kept the county under this year's tax cap of 1.74 percent.
Democrats wanted to reduce the tax levy by more than doubling the use of money from the county's debt reserve fund, which currently holds $3.5 million. The proposed budget called for spending $836,500 from that source. Democrats wanted to use another $900,000.
County Treasurer Kyle R. Andrews said, "I'm very comfortable with the budgeted amount." He said the county's credit rating could be harmed by overspending from reserve funds.
County Manager Richard E. Updegrove said the county plans to make 18 percent of this year's debt repayments from that debt fund.
Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said using more money from the debt reserve would have been safe, since the fund, used to pay off borrowing expenses, has been as low as $1.4 million without harm to the county's financial position.
Updegrove argued against another $120,000 spending cut proposed by the Democrats, which the GOP majority defeated. Virtuoso said the money was expected to be used to create a new contract administrator job.
Updegrove said the county has been working on ways to centralize the county's purchasing structure but he said, "This is not justification for any position." He said the county's Financial Management Group is still discussing whether to restructure the purchasing operation.
"We're actually putting money in for a position that we haven't discussed," Virtuoso said. "This actually increases the tax levy."
Another means of keeping the tax levy down was the decision not to share the county's portion of Seneca Niagara Casino slot machine profits with cities and towns. This year, the county split up $300,000 among the municipalities, with the exception of Niagara Falls, which has its own casino share set in state law.
But in 2017, the county will keep all of its casino allocation, estimated at $820,000. The county will use 75 percent of that in the general fund, and the other 25 percent will continue to be available in an "economic development fund" parceled out by the Legislature for favored community groups and projects.