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Amherst Republicans have served notice that taxes will be their No. 1 issue in the battle for control of the Amherst Town Board in November.

After the GOP slate was blistered for alleged dirty campaign tactics by Peggy Santillo, a Town Board Democrat who isn't running this year, Republicans fired a broadside not at Mrs. Santillo, but a Democrat who is running -- former Supervisor Daniel J. Ward.

And the GOP response dealt mostly with Ward's spending record as a Town Board member in the late 1980s and as a supervisor from 1990 through 1993, not with Mrs. Santillo's allegations.

"The recent attack on GOP campaign tactics by (Mrs. Santillo) was clearly orchestrated by Ward in an attempt to distract voters from his dismal tax and spend record during his six years on the Amherst Town Board," GOP Council Members Jane S. Woodward and James P. Hayes and Planning Board member Robert C. Simmons said in a joint statement.

Mrs. Santillo Thursday charged Republicans with distortions and falsehoods in their campaign literature this year, alleging they are pawns of the developers who she said generously finance their campaigns.

"Obviously, Ward wants Amherst taxpayers to forget that he tried to raise taxes 21 percent, that he twice voted against (acquiring) 765 acres of green space . . . and that his motivation for returning to the Town Board is based solely on dividing Amherst for his own partisan political gain," the Republicans said.

In his four years as supervisor, working with a Town Board controlled by the GOP, Ward submitted general operating budgets that, if approved, would have increased the tax rate by $1.02 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $5.86, a cumulative 21 percent increase.

But in those four years, the GOP board approved budgets that did hike the tax rate by $1.12 to $5.96, a 23 percent increase.

Ward was defeated for re-election in November 1993. The following November, the board raised the tax rate to $6.10, where it remains. But rather than holding the line in 1998, Republicans last week submitted proposals to cut taxes by an undetermined amount.

"The Ward faction of the town Democratic Party would love nothing better than to re-establish a foothold in town government and bring back the petty, partisan and divisive politics that were the hallmark of Ward's six years on the Town Board," the GOP slate for the board said.

"Last week, we announced a sensible plan to cut property taxes . . . and have pledged to work with Democratic Town Supervisor Susan J. Grelick to accomplish this goal -- a cooperative effort that Ward would clearly like to interfere with," the GOP team asserted.

Ward said Mrs. Santillo didn't tell him she was going to attack GOP campaign ethics, but he admitted that, "It's something I wanted to say and something I should have said. We think alike."

Ward called the Republicans' statement that he wanted to raise taxes by 21 percent while not mentioning that the actual increase by the GOP was 23 percent "another example of their love for the big-lie technique.

"Democrats were never the majority on any of the boards that passed any town budget, but you would never know it from listening to them. In the end, if there was any "taxing and spending" it was done by them. In fact, my recollection is that I never voted for any of the budgets, except maybe one special-district budget, while I was in office," Ward said.

With his name recognition and experience at Town Hall, political leaders view Ward as the strongest of the three Democrats running against Mrs. Woodward, Hayes and Simmons.

Ward speculated that the GOP slate "decided to pick on me" because "they probably see Sue Grelick as untouchable and they didn't want to give any added name recognition to my running mates," Town Clerk Daniel A. Longo and newcomer Dr. Todd E. Shatkin.

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