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ADDED EXPENSES, REDUCED AID IN PATAKI BUDGET WOULD COST COUNTY MORE THAN $2.4 MILLION

If Gov. George E. Pataki's fiscal 2000 state budget proposal were to be adopted unchanged, it would cost Niagara County more than $2.4 million, according to county Budget Director Sharon Sacco.

It could be more.

Sacco said she is not sure what the impact would be of proposed changes in funding for two children's programs: child welfare, which used to be called foster care, and the early intervention program, which pertains to developmental problems for very young children.

But she has calculated losses in five other programs.

The $2,427,897 in losses comes on top of an estimated $2.3 million hit the county believes it will suffer as a result of the Health Care Reform Act, which forces counties to pay some of the cost of the new Family Health Plus program to provide health coverage for those without private insurance.

"That's a 5 percent tax increase through no fault of our own," said Legislator Lee Simonson, R-Lewiston.

Legislature Majority Leader Shirley G. Urtel, R-Cambria, who is also chairwoman of the Finance Committee, said this year is looking "extremely difficult" as a result of the unfunded mandates.

The state is throwing the counties a bone, which Niagara County is not interested in taking. The budget would allow the counties to increase a surcharge on local phone bills to pay for 911 emergency systems.

However, Niagara County doesn't tax phone bills; it pays for the 911 emergency call service by using some of its sales tax revenue.

"New York State thinks they're doing us a favor by allowing us to raise taxes on the local level," Simonson said.

In the past, the county has considered raising its sales tax to 8 percent from 7 percent, but Urtel said she doesn't think that idea is on the front burner.

"It's no more serious than it ever was," she said.

The county is studying state mandates to find out the least it can do to comply with them.

Urtel said, "I have a pack about 2 inches thick of mandates from various departments, Social Services and the Health Department being the most."

She said the goal of the mandate review committee that was formed last year is to find ways "to deliver the heart of the program" without extras.

The county is also working on a personnel audit, dubbed Workforce 2000, bringing in an outside consulting group to see where the fat is without being affected by politics or personalities.

Pataki is proposing to do away with highway aid to counties under the Consolidated Highway Improvement Program, known as CHIPS.

That would take $306,000 away from Niagara County, Sacco said. However, she noted that Pataki is not taking CHIPS away from the towns, just from the counties.

The county will lose $738,000 in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families welfare program. Sacco said the cut is in "maintenance of effort" funding.

"You have to show you're putting forth the effort to run the program correctly," Sacco said.

A block grant to the county Probation Department is to be cut, costing the county $81,000, Sacco said.

In addition, Sacco is tallying among the losses the continuation of multiyear sanctions against the state for violating federal rules on how to administer Medicaid and food stamps.

The state passed on to the counties some of the penalty the federal government imposed. The result is $700,897 in food stamp administration aid and $602,000 in Medicaid administration aid being taken away from the county.

Sacco said at a Finance Committee meeting last week that it was harder than in the past to find out exactly what was in the state budget proposal, because Pataki's office refused to brief the state Association of Counties.

Simonson said, "The governor's office apparently felt the Association of Counties was putting out a negative spin on the impact of the budget."

Sacco said she was "appalled" by this practice. She said county budget directors are expecting to attend an Association of Counties meeting in Albany at the end of this month, which is likely to include a face-off with the state Division of the Budget.

"I hope you tear them apart," Simonson said. "I hope you show up loaded and ready. They want us to not understand (the state budget). They don't want us to know the right questions to ask."

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