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The tax base in Erie County's largest town is growing again, a year after logging its first decline since World War II.

Harry Williams, town assessor in Amherst, Monday estimated that the town's new assessed valuation could be as much as $56 million more than the current figure of $3.94 billion, which is eight-tenths of 1 percent lower than the previous year.

Williams, who spoke at a budget meeting of the Town Board, said the estimate is still preliminary because it doesn't reflect recently increased income levels for senior citizens to qualify for tax exemptions or the outcome of the annual assessment grievance process.

But he told The Buffalo News that when all the figures are in, the increase is still anticipated to top $50 million. Williams said the new assessed valuation equates to $250,000 to $300,000 in general operating taxes or, other officials said, 8 to 9 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation on Amherst's tax rate of $6.10.

Williams attributed the increased valuation to new construction, utilities and higher assessments on residential and commercial properties that were under-assessed. However, one of the major trends in last year's decline -- stagnant or decreasing housing values -- hasn't been reversed, he told The News. Williams' comments, coupled with reports by two other department heads on potential savings next year, prompted Council Member William L. Kindel to forecast the possibility of Amherst's first tax cut in years.

Personnel Director Patrick R. Pujolas said an early-retirement incentive program could save at least $500,000, while Comptroller Charles E. Vanyo outlined a plan offering up to $750,000 in savings.

Monday's meeting with town department heads was called to discuss the board's desire for a no-tax-hike budget in November, when five of the seven members will be running for election. Kindel, the Republican candidate for supervisor, said the board shouldn't stop there if a bona-fide tax cut is possible.

But Council Member Michael G. McGuire, a Democrat not up for election, sounded a note of caution, saying it is too early in the budget process to be making promises, especially with employee union contracts expiring at the end of this year.

"We've got to be very careful. We don't know what situations are going to come up next year. No one wants to raise taxes, but if we do have a slight percentage increase, we don't want to hang ourselves now" with a promise that can't be kept, McGuire said.

Several department heads said personnel costs account for 90 percent or more of their budgets. For example, Police Chief John B. Askey said he has control over less than 3 percent of his budget. "The rest is salaries, utilities, gas . . ." he told the board.

"When you tell us not to bring a budget in any higher than last year . . . I can't bring personnel and equipment costs down any further; (the) equipment (budget) has stayed the same for several years," Askey told the board.

Court Administrator J. William Everett noted that judges' salaries have been frozen for eight years, along with those of all the town's elected officials. "We've gone from first to worst" in pay among the largest town courts in the state, Everett said. He added that "nothing can be more devastating to the morale of employees" than a freeze on promotions.

As a taxpayer, Askey said only 18 percent of his local tax bill is town general operating taxes. The rest is county taxes and town special-district and highway taxes, he said. Recreation Director Jeffrey M. Bloom agreed, saying school and county tax bills have soared while the town has kept its taxes relatively stable in recent years.

Kindel, however, said, "Western New York is dying, and one of the reasons it's dying is taxes. We're not going to save Western New York by ourselves, but we can be a pace-setter. We've got to do our share to do better."

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