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The Amherst Central School Board, facing an unexpectedly large drop in district assessments, has approved a 1999-2000 tax rate of $28.84 per $1,000 assessed value, an increase of 5.7 percent from last year.

In the spring, school officials projected a tax hike of 1.5 percent, a modest increase that followed two years with no change in the rate. But a $44 million drop in the district's assessed value prompted Tuesday's rate increase of $1.56 per $1,000 and ended talks of a tax freeze for next year.

Superintendent Dennis D. Ford noted that the district has reduced this year's proposed tax levy by more than $300,000 through the application of some unanticipated state aid and efforts to contain expenditures. The resulting $21.7 million levy is unchanged from last year, but the effort still resulted in a 5.7 percent tax increase. Ford noted that the levy has fallen more than $200,000 since the 1996-97 school year.

"This disturbs me because this board and district administrators have done one heck of a job at keeping taxes down, but we don't control what happens in the town (of Amherst)," Ford said.

The district's assessed valuation dropped more than 5 percent, from about $798 million in 1998-99 to more than $754 million this year. An assessment reduction for National Fuel subtracted $15 million; senior citizen exemptions took another $8 million; and lower property values in the Eggertsville portion of the district were responsible for $21 million.

Based on earlier information from the town assessor's office, board members were expecting a slight reduction in assessments, and they reacted to the most recent figures with expressions of dismay and disbelief.

President Paul V. Batt Jr. suggested that he and Vice President David J. Dengler discuss the situation with Town Supervisor Susan Grelick.

Dengler agreed to the meeting, but he questioned whether the assessment figures are correct.

Remarking that there are about 15,000 homes in the district's portion of the town, Dengler said he finds it hard to believe that the houses could experience a drop in assessed value of more than $20 million.

"That seems like a lot of money." he said.

But Mark A. Whyle, director of administrative services, said the figures have been checked. He also said that there are a number of houses in the western part of the district that have been reduced by $10,000, $20,000 and $30,000.

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