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ARGUMENT THAT CITY PROPERTY-TAX HIKE WILL CAUSE FLIGHT WON'T WASH

Another "leader" following in the footsteps of a politically cowardly predecessor who also was afraid to raise taxes in Buffalo?

Or a visionary who correctly sees that hiking property taxes would just drive out more people and start a death spiral in a beleaguered city?

That question is at the center of Buffalo's budget debate as Mayor Masiello looks for outside help in closing a combined $29 million gap this year and next while opting not to raise the property tax. He argues that would send homeowners packing, while city unions say a tax hike may be the only thing that will keep people in the city.

A look at the numbers in some popular suburbs helps answer the question, and it indicates Buffalo's tax rate is not what will drive people out.

Thanks to a real estate agent friend and Greater Buffalo Board of Realtor computers, we know that most homes bought in Buffalo over the past 18 months were three-bedroom Colonials -- two stories and a basement -- that sold for an average of about $72,500.

According to assessment officials, the total city charge -- for government, schools and sewer service -- is about $17.96 per $1,000 of assessed value, with the city assessing at full market value.

When county taxes are thrown in, it means the owner of that house would pay a total of about $1,841.50 a year in taxes to live in Buffalo, plus a roughly $400 water bill.

How does that compare with some of the more beckoning suburbs? Well, in Amherst they charge about $5.97 per $1,000 of assessed value for town services and $22.27 for the Williamsville schools, which cover most of the town. That's well above the city tax rate.

And any irate Buffalonians thinking about rushing out there also have to consider that the typical two-story, three-bedroom in Amherst has been selling for about $117,500.

Even with Amherst assessing at only about 75 percent of market value, that disenchanted Buffalonian would have a new county and local tax bill of $4,084, according to assessment officials. That's well beyond the tax bill in Buffalo -- even before considering the extra cost of the new house itself.

Out in Lancaster, another fast-growing area, the story is similar. The data show three-bedroom, two-story houses there have been selling for about $127,500.

With the town assessing at about 89 percent of value, that homeowner pays about $3,701.29 in taxes for town, county and school operations and sewer and refuse service. So again, not only would the house itself cost a lot more, the tax bill also would be much higher.

What about up the road in the Town of Tonawanda? It's a much closer call there, with conditions more similar to Buffalo's. A two-story, three-bedroom home averages $82,500 on the market -- $10,000 more than in Buffalo.

And though the town charges roughly $46 per $1,000 of assessed value for town services, plus another $20.76 for Ken-Ton schools, the town assesses at only about 60 percent of market value, officials said.

When it's all totaled up, that homeowner would pay $2,277 per year -- about the same as in Buffalo. However, there remains the $10,000 cost difference for the house itself, which still would outweigh the impact of any Buffalo tax hike.

What does it all mean? Granted, not all three-bedroom houses are alike; one in Buffalo may be older than one someplace else. But if the argument is that a Buffalonian will flee the city simply to save dollars and cents on a tax bill, it doesn't add up.

Instead of using that argument, Masiello should be pointing out that living in the city actually is a bargain -- provided there are the services people want.

What some residents might, indeed, flee for is value. And that encompasses not just tax rates, but everything from the quality of schools and police to recreational and cultural options.

To his credit, Masiello has not ignored that. He's already improved services and paid attention to parts of the city neglected during Jimmy Griffin's reign of error.

He's also right that Buffalo is a poor city, many of whose residents would be hurt by higher taxes precisely because fleeing is not an economic option.

Moreover, the city has only a $31 million legal window -- not much more than the combined budget gap -- within which it could hike taxes. And officials expect that taxing limit to drop in coming years as Buffalo's total assessed value shrinks. So the potential for self-help is limited.

And there are other considerations, not least of which is the fact that raising taxes would remove needed pressure on city unions for efficiency changes.

All of those factors can be used to argue against hiking taxes, and they have to be weighed against the impact of a decline in the city's quality of life if more revenue isn't found.

But if Masiello wants to make the case for outside help instead of higher Buffalo taxes, it would be a more credible argument if made on those terms. Simply saying a tax hike is going to push people to the suburbs doesn't hold water.

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