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TAXPAYERS IRKED BY LACK OF CAP ON SPENDING BY SCHOOL DISTRICTS

For a man who had just learned his school taxes may be cut $350 under the tentative 1997-98 state budget, Felix Ingrao of the Town of Tonawanda was decidely grumpy Wednesday.

The reason had to do with what Albany's lawmakers failed to include in the final version of the budget's $2.2 billion plan for school tax relief -- an automatic cap on school spending.

"There is no real relief without a spending cap," said Ingrao, who heads the Ken-Ton Concerned Taxpayers Association. "They (Albany) gave us something, but the districts will . . . keep raising and raising taxes."

The budget agreement, announced late Tuesday, provides property tax cuts, phased in from 1998 to 2002, that will be worth $2.2 billion a year statewide. Under the plan, districts exempt part of the assessed value of an owner's home, thereby lowering tax bills. The state then reimburses the districts.

The exemption amount varies throughout the state. In Western New York, $30,000 of a home's assessed value is exempted, with the figure rising to $50,000 for senior citizens.

For a home assessed at $83,167 -- the three-year median here -- with a school tax bill of $965, the estimated tax savings would be $350 per home or $580 for senior citizens, according to the state budget office.

Homeowners won't see the tax cuts until late in 1998.

While happy with the tax cut, taxpayer groups said the new budget agreement doesn't curb school spending enough. Most had supported requiring a limit on spending as a condition of receiving tax relief.

Instead, a school budget must be defeated twice before a cap kicks in. The lid would be 4 percent, or 120 percent of the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower, over the previous year's spending.

That provision also goes into effect in 1998.

"It sends me through the roof," said Jack Beilman, who is leader of the Lancaster Taxpayers Association and the founder of a new Western New York coalition of taxpayer groups.

"It's token reform," he said. "Nowhere else in America do you have to vote on something twice before it's defeated. There needs to be a solid cap. Anything else is smoke and mirrors."

"I think it's a slap in the face," said Marianna Sontag of the East Amherst Taxpayers Association. "I think it's unfortunate that our politicians did not see the need for a cap. Their constituents do."

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