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AS COUNTY TAX BURDEN STEADIES, SCHOOL LEVIES REMAIN A BACKBREAKER

Dennis Gorski's promise to keep county taxes running in place for three years is a nice start, a step in the right direction and all those other good things.

But it won't make a whole lot of difference to a family with a $130,000 house in Orchard Park.

As Gorski -- and every suburban homeowner -- knows, the big chunk of the local tax bill isn't county taxes, it's school taxes.

The owner of that $130,000 house in Orchard Park -- the median assessment in the town -- pays about $5,100 in local taxes. Fully half of that is school tax, which is slightly more than county, town and special district (sewer, water, fire, garbage) taxes combined. It's pretty much the same story across the county.

"What Gorski did sends a good message," said Terry Campbell, Orchard Park's tax assessor. "But the big deal is really school taxes. That's where everybody has to get real."

Part of the problem in these parts is the economy has flat-lined for years, and more people and businesses have moved out than moved in.

Of course, part of the reason businesses and people flee is high taxes. And the more who leave, the more that those left behind have to pay. It's the old vicious cycle.

One way to lighten the tax load is to bring in new business. Campbell said Orchard Park's property taxes didn't go up this year for the first time in his 22 years as assessor. A big reason is that the town -- unlike other places in the county -- has lured new business and light industry.

"When the tax base jumps $20 million, it helps," Campbell said understatedly. "The commercial and industrial (growth) helps more than the residential, because the main services that businesses need are sewers. You don't have to add schools and teachers."

High taxes make it harder to bring people and business in -- although the high taxes buy us good schools, which let our children compete in the real world. Unfortunately, most of those real-world jobs are in Arizona, the Carolinas and other boom states, which means that we're paying to educate the future work force for the Sun Belt.

The vicious cycle. But just about everybody agrees that the way to stop the madness is to lower the taxes.

As evidenced by Orchard Park, that means doing something about school costs.

"That's what eats the taxpayer alive," said Campbell. "It's half the tax bill. Years ago, it wasn't close to that."

Campbell has the numbers to prove it. Ten years ago, Orchard Park's schools got $9 million from town taxpayers. This year, the schools got $20 million -- more than double the amount of a decade ago.

The system could save millions by increasing class sizes, cutting all-day kindergarten, lopping off advanced-placement courses and classes for the gifted in elementary schools or -- a recent battleground -- gutting high school sports.

Of course, those programs are the reason a lot of people moved to the suburbs in the first place.

"We could save a lot of money that way," said Chuck Stoddart, the Orchard Park school superintendent. "But that's not what the community wants."

The real money in school budgets is people costs.

Stoddard said more than 75 percent of Orchard Park's school budget is "body-count costs" -- salaries and benefits for administrators, teachers and lower-level workers.

That shouldn't come as a shock. From 1980 to 1993, teacher salaries across the state more than doubled. The increase was partly fueled by Mario Cuomo's Excellence in Teaching program, which padded teacher salaries.

Western New York teachers are among the highest-paid in the state. Once again, the vicious cycle comes into play. Because this area has lost more than 100,000 people in the last 25 years, and more businesses left than came in, there's little need for new schools and new teacher hires. Which means that a lot of our teachers have a lot of experience and make a lot more than newer teachers would.

"In New York State, teaching is a graying industry," said Stoddart. "We're not adding a lot of young blood, so our median teacher salary is high."

The real challenge in cutting taxes is taking some of the school tax burden off homeowners.

There's modest good news on that front.

George Pataki's school-tax relief plan would replace a share of the property tax for schools with state money, presumably from the state's recent Wall Street and Lotto windfalls.

"That program has great potential," said Stoddart. "I just hope the state has the money (to pay for it) down the line."

Stoddart would also like to see school funding come partly from the state income tax. Michigan went the full income tax-funding route a few years ago, and not happily.

"They've since returned to funding a portion with property tax again," said Stoddart. "I think a mix of the two is fair."

Gorski took a step this week. But, in this state, it's a long road.

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