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Niagara County's share of the total sales tax receipts for 1999 rose nearly 5 percent, which County Treasurer David S. Broderick said may be a sign of economic growth.

Broderick said the reasons for the increase won't be clear until the state supplies the county with a breakdown of the figures by category of sales, but he said that report won't arrive until sometime in 2001.

"Hopefully, it's attributable to growth in the economy," Broderick speculated.

Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce President Charles P. Steiner said, "I think it's encouraging news. . . . I would certainly hope it's the start of growth, but it's hard to tell where that (revenue) came from."

He added, "We thought we had a very good tourism season."

Overall, the 1999 sales tax collection was 3.99 percent higher than in 1998, Broderick reported. The county keeps 47 percent of the sales tax money not pre-empted by the cities of Niagara Falls, Lockport and North Tonawanda.

Despite the increase, the receipts still came up short of the amount projected in the 1999 county budget.

Out of a total of $64,427,848 in sales taxes collected in Niagara County during 1999, the county's share was $24,592,089 -- an increase of 4.76 percent over 1998.

The county budget employed a projected sales tax figure of $24,788,388, meaning there was a revenue shortfall of $196,299.

That didn't concern Broderick too much. "That's almost like being on target. I don't remember us ever being that close," he said, although in some years the actual revenue exceeded the projection.

"It's a $200 million budget. We've got some flexibility there," Broderick commented.

That's a far more optimistic tone than last year. The county used the same $24,788,388 projected sales tax revenue for its 1998 budget, and came up short by more than $1.3 million.

When the 1998 budget was adopted, in December 1997, the Legislature was controlled by Democrats. Republicans, who took over the majority the following month, complained that the sales tax estimate was unrealistic, but they have used the same figure in the 1999 and 2000 budgets they made.

Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville, said last week, "I think the county used to over-project sales tax revenue to make their budget. I don't think we did. There was the expectation it would go up, and it did, tremendously."

The sales tax figure is the highest in five years, Broderick said.

Last year, Broderick was concerned that gasoline purchases on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation and the rise of Internet shopping might put the sales tax receipts in a permanent downward spiral.

That didn't happen, and Broderick isn't sure why.

Gasoline prices rose substantially late in the year. Broderick said he thought that might send more customers to the reservation, but he reflected, "We're creatures of habit." He said people usually patronize the same gas stations week after week.

At any rate, someone had a good Christmas season. The December sales tax figure's growth from 1998 accounted for 27 percent of the total increase for the entire year, and 21 percent of the increase in the county's share.

December is not the most lucrative month for sales tax. June is first, followed by September, and December is third, followed by March. This pecking order has held firm for years.

June's year-to-year growth accounted for 30 percent of this year's total increase, and September provided 24 percent.

On the other hand, overall sales tax receipts in February, May, July, and August were down from the same months in 1998.

Burmaster expressed confidence sales tax revenue will continue to rise this year.

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