A taxpayer group's efforts to organize a petition drive to force a referendum on the Niagara County legislators' 25 percent pay raise seem to have run afoul of state law.
County Attorney Edward P. Perlman declined to comment on the legality of the petition effort, but a veteran municipal attorney not connected to the current Republican majority in the County Legislature said no such vote is allowed under the law.
Richard Eliseo of Cambria, president of the Concerned Niagara County Taxpayers Association, said he is convinced the raise, adopted by the Legislature Dec. 7 as part of the 2000 county budget, is subject to what is called a permissive referendum.
That is a process state law allows only in 11 specific instances. It calls for voters to sign petitions within 45 days of legislative action in order to get it on the ballot for a special referendum, giving the public a chance to overrule a Legislature decision.
State law says the petitions must bear valid signatures equal to 5 percent of the numbers of votes cast in the last election for governor. In Niagara County, the 1998 gubernatorial turnout was about 30,000, so that means 1,500 signatures from registered voters would be needed, according to Democratic Election Commissioner Judith M. Cirifalco.
As of Jan. 1, legislators' base pay will rise from $12,075 to $15,075. As in the past, the party leaders earn $500 extra, and the chairman gets an additional $3,000. It is the first legislative raise since 1991.
"Twenty-five percent is a hell of a lot," Eliseo said. "Don't tell me you haven't had a raise. . . . Where's my tax cut?"
The Legislature left the total amount collected by taxes unchanged for 2000.
Morton H. Abramowitz, a longtime assistant county attorney in past Democratic administrations, said the taxpayers are not reading state law closely enough.
Abramowitz said the permissive referendum procedure is allowed only when the Legislature passes a local law, a type of legislation used only in a few specific instances. He said most legislative business is done by resolution, which is never subject to a permissive referendum.
Abramowitz pointed to section 360 of the County Law, a state statute that declares the county budget "shall be finally adopted by resolution." That is how the 2000 budget was passed.
Eliseo said he was relying on Section 24 of the Municipal Home Rule Law, which lists the types of actions for which permissive referendums can be held. He said it allows a referendum on "salary increases for county officers."
But the section states that a referendum is allowed only if the pay was raised by a local law.
Local laws are only used to raise salaries in the middle of a term or when an appointee without a set term is not part of a salary scale providing automatic incremental raises, the section says.
The only local law raising a county salary in the past two years came Dec. 7, when the Legislature raised the pay of Real Property Tax Services Director William F. Budde Jr. from $47,735 to $53,640. Budde has no fixed term and, until the resolution was passed, was not on the management salary scale.
In 1996, the taxpayers group tried to organize a petition drive to force a referendum on a local law that granted raises to 11 department heads and commissioners. It failed to gather enough signatures by the 45-day deadline.