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STIFFER PENALTY URGED FOR TAX DELINQUENCIES

The Erie County attorney's office, backed by the two top leaders of the County Legislature, wants to raise the penalty on delinquent property taxes from 12 to 18 percent a year.

Because Erie County collects the taxes for towns villages and school boards, the county would keep 6 percent of any additional penalty.

But not all other legislators agree with Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore and Majority Leader Crystal Peoples, D-Buffalo, the legislative sponsors.

Assistant County Attorney Paul Beyer said the penalty has remained at 12 percent since World War II.

If the State Legislature gives Erie County permission for the increase, and the County Legislature supports it, the penalty for tax delinquency would rise for all towns, villages, school districts and the cities of Lackawanna and Tonawanda.

The City of Buffalo raised the penalty for tax delinquency from 12 to 18 percent six years ago.

"This is just an increase to encourage people to pay on time," said Ms. Peoples.

The proposal was tabled and left with the Finance and Management Committee before the legislators started a seven-week recess last week.

At least three legislators opposed the idea or wanted to wait.

"Governments won't object to this," said Legislator Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo. "The residents might. In essence, you're increasing the tax."

"It also would make it more difficult for homeowners to pay back tax," said Michael Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst.

"I'm concerned about the average homeowner that can't pay the tax," said Raymond K. Dusza, D-Cheektowaga. "Now we are saying, 'because you can't pay the 12 percent (penalty), we're going to jack it up to 18 percent.' "

Tax delinquents can build up three years' back taxes before they face foreclosure. According to the county comptroller's office, more than 95 percent of the county's tax was paid promptly in 1994, 1995, 1996.

The arrears for any one year started between $21 million and $23.1 million. At the end of 1996, all but $5.4 million of the 1995 tax was paid.

But before three years are up, most can pay. For instance, at the end of 1996, all but $5.4 million of the 1995 tax was paid.

"A few people will fall between the cracks," said Legislator Michael Fitzpatrick, D-Buffalo. "That always happens. People who are going to abandon properties are the ones who abuse. One guy owned 200-some properties. It's the slumlord we're looking for."

Assuming that tax delinquents pay the penalty interest, county collections of penalties appear to run more than $2 million a year now and would rise to $3 million.

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