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The 1998 Niagara County budget will at least freeze the property tax levy for the fourth straight year, and may cut it, the County Legislature's Finance Committee decided Monday night.

The panel approved a tentative budget of $194,702,643, said Legislator Richard C. Corica, D-Lockport, the committee chairman. The spending level is down $184,359 from the current year's, Corica said.

The amount to be collected in taxes is again $54,067,376, but Corica held out hope the figure may be cut by the time the Legislature holds a public hearing, probably Nov. 18, and adopts the final budget Dec. 2.

Corica said the county may benefit from three factors, which might lead to a tax cut:

Increased state tourism promotion reimbursements.

A possible change in the way the county obtains natural gas for its buildings, which Corica said could produce "significant savings."

"A very successful early retirement program," which could produce personnel savings. Corica said the budget does not call for any layoffs.

"This has been by far the smoothest of the four years," Corica said. "They (department heads) are coming in very responsibly. We're setting goals and they're sticking to them."

Corica said welfare reform is the major factor in the county's ability to reduce total spending. He said the requirement that Home Relief applicants either obtain a job or enter job training has produced about $1 million in savings.

Medicaid costs have also been reduced through managed care.

Corica said costs for operating Mount View Health Facility, the county nursing home, will drop about $190,000. Corica credited the Civil Service Employees Association for embracing an employee incentive plan which enables workers to receive part of the savings realized by their own suggestions for improved efficiency.

"We're going to run in the black this year," Corica said, reporting the county may have a fund balance of about $6 million at the end of the year.

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