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SCHOOL BOARDS URGED TO CUT OR FREEZE TAXES

Erie County Executive Gorski did it. So did Amherst Supervisor Susan Grelick and her counterparts in towns from Tonawanda to Orchard Park.

Now, taxpayer groups throughout the region are calling on school districts -- the biggest spenders of local property taxes -- to freeze or cut property taxes next year.

"If all these governments can do it, so can school districts," said Mary Jerge of the East Amherst Taxpayers Association.

Although school boards usually don't unveil budgets until the spring, Mrs. Jerge said Williamsville and other boards should make an "immediate commitment" to decreasing or freezing taxes next year.

"If they don't agree to it now, we'll hear that same sorry old song when budget time comes about how the state cut their money or this went up or whatever," she said. "If we don't get a commitment now, they will never be able to achieve it. They won't have the time. They may not have the political will."

A coalition of Western New York taxpayer groups issued a similar call last week, saying its 150 or so members may start circulating petitions asking individual school boards to join efforts for tax cuts or freezes.

"It certainly is time," said Jack Beilman, head of the Concerned Citizens Coalition of Western New York. He said freezing or cutting taxes would help repair the rift between schools and taxpayers who rejected a record number of school board budgets this year.

"It would meet with the approval of the entire community," he said.

The initial response from some school districts was lukewarm, however.

"To make a pledge of no tax increase now would be irresponsible," said Anne Rohrer, president of the Williamsville School Board, which starts the budget process Tuesday.

"We don't know yet what it would mean to our program," she said. "We are very aware of the mood of the community. But right now, it (a no-tax-increase pledge) is too preliminary."

The taxpayer call for schools to reign in taxes comes at a time when officials from a variety of local governments are trying to put a dent in the region's heavy tax load -- a problem leaders blame in large part for Western New York's economy and resultant headaches like the shrinking population and declining home values.

Last month, Gorski pledged to freeze county taxes over the next three years and urged school districts -- which are responsible for up to 60 percent of local tax bills -- to take similar action.

In unveiling their proposed budgets over the last few days, several municipalities have either frozen or decreased taxes.

The Amherst Town Board, for instance, already has agreed not to increase taxes and, with an election looming in November for Ms. Grelick and three board members, is likely to approve a tax cut in this year's budget.

Preliminary budgets call for Orchard Park's town tax to drop 3.1 percent and the Town of Tonawanda to dip by slightly less than 1 percent.

One former school board member, however, said such decreases are not "fiscally possible" for schools.

Edward Lanthier, who left the Lancaster School Board out of the frustration this year, said savings big enough to produce a tax cut or freeze would require pay or benefit cuts for teachers -- a move that state laws forbid.

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