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PROPOSED $70.8 MILLION BUDGET HAS NO TAX HIKE

Not only will West Seneca residents have no school tax hike, but residents in the three other towns served by the school district also may see their tax bills hold the line, the School Board said at its budget hearing Monday.

The board is proposing a $70,859,206 budget with 44 percent of that -- $30,802,414 -- from local property taxes, just $17,500 more than last year.

Overall, 1998-99 school spending will be up $264,788, or 4 per cent, but that has been offset by some increase in taxable property (including one commercial property valued at $800,000 now coming off a tax abatement program) and $4.7 million taken from the unappropriated fund balance, said Treasurer Brian Schulz.

Although "equalization rates" between the towns will not be known until this summer, Schulz believes tax rates will not change from last year: $23.53 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in West Seneca, $24.42 in Cheektowaga, $18.63 in Orchard Park and $18.10 in the portion of Hamburg served by West Seneca schools.

"Last year, when there was an 8-cent per $1,000 cut here, we got a tax hike," said Ray West of Cheektowaga. "And when I went to the school to vote, nobody could show me a budget or explain what was happening."

"We try to get the information out," said School Board President James Asztalos. "And we can try harder. We'll make sure printouts of what we have here tonight are available at the polling places this year."

"The problem is that the equalization rate is imposed by Albany," said Schulz. "Orchard Park and Hamburg had recent revaluations so their rate per thousand is lower than ours or Cheektowaga.

"After the local assessor does his work," Schulz added, "Albany looks it over and says: 'You got it 85 percent right, or you passed with 65 percent,' and we have no control over that."

Although no one complained about taxes staying the same, there were some questions about specific items.

Frank Russo, who served on the citizens review panel on school spending wondered why their suggestion of shifting driver education from summer school to a "community education" program only saved $27,000, not the $87,000 budgeted this year.

"We are only charging $100, not the $300 it actually costs us because we wanted to avoid 'sticker shock' and to ensure the program would be available to families that have more than one student taking it," Superintendent Richard Sagar said. "We plan on assessing the program after a year and maybe raising tuition. Most districts charge around $200, $250."

Trustee James Lawson suggested the budget is not yet final. "We're still looking at it and we might adjust that," he said.

"Why not just bite the bullet and drop drivers' ed?" asked Trustee James Sheehan.

"Because it is a meritorious program," said Sagar.

He said students who pass qualify for lower insurance, making it a popular offering, as well.

But the biggest saving to the district is a product of the Wall Street boom, Schulz said.

The rising stock market means the contribution to staff retirement funds is going to be less than 2 percent of salaries, down from 5 percent in the current budget. Overall, fringe benefits will cost $8.5 million, down from $9.7 million.

Despite increasing the contribution from "unappropriated fund balances" to offset spending costs, the district still has $5.9 million in that fund for emergencies.

Since the 1994-95 school year, spending has risen from $62.6 million to $70 million -- but programs have increased, as well. All-day kindergarten began this year, as did an alternative school and spending from a $17 million technology bond that will computerizing every classroom by 1999.

However, with last year's tax cut and this year's zero increase, the average tax bill has risen just 37 cents per $1,000 over four years, according to district records.

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