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Advocates of a bigger senior citizens center in Amherst said Monday that the town can borrow $8 million to build it without having to raise town property taxes or cut other capital projects.

"I think this is a project worth doing," Council Member Jane S. Woodward said. "It usually costs money for good projects. But as I have said, the new senior center will not be responsible for a tax increase."

A critic immediately dubbed the plan a textbook example of "running government by debt."

"It's just a big refinancing scheme," Councilman Daniel J. Ward said. "And I think it's disingenuous for any member of this council to come in and push for their pet project and then add it won't raise taxes."

The plan unveiled Monday calls for paying off the debt over 20 years.

If the Town Board proceeds, the borrowing costs would total $5 million, pushing the total cost of a new senior citizens center to $13 million.

There appears to be enough support on the seven-member Town Board to borrow the money.

"We're a town that takes care of everybody," Councilman William L. Kindel said.

Under the plan, the town would begin making debt-service payments -- $200,000 in 2000 and roughly $645,000 a year thereafter until 2020 -- as it retires a large chunk of debt from previous capital projects.

An advisory panel appointed to review financing a new senior center also recommended stretching out the number of years to repay existing short-term debt, from under five years under the current debt schedule to as many as 10 to 15 years.

Stretching out the repayment schedule would allow the town to reduce the amount of debt payments in each of the years, freeing up money for the senior center debt. The overall amount of interest paid on these short-term projects would increase because of the extra years.

The debate over financing debt comes at an important time in town government.

Last month, the town agreed to borrow $2.5 million to buy the four-story St. Mary of the Angels motherhouse owned by the Sisters of St. Francis.

On Monday, the board borrowed $648,000 to renovate the Clearfield Recreation Center.

Other capital projects on the horizon include improvements at the Amherst Museum ($1.3 million), the North Amherst Recreation Center ($210,000) and the Ellicott Creek Trailway extension ($700,000).

The advisory panel headed by William E. Finn presented a financial plan to the Town Board that included those projects. This year, Amherst's debt-service payments total $2.3 million. If the senior center is built, along with a half a dozen other capital projects included in the plan, the town's total debt would be $2.2 million in 2001. Thereafter, the debt would begin to drop off.

However, that is assuming the town is not forced to embark on other, unexpected capital projects, Ward said.

"This could limit our ability for other projects," Ward said.

Mrs. Woodward disagreed: "There will be room for new projects. That doesn't mean the town has to do them, but there will be room."

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