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2001 BUDGET MAY INCLUDE 26% TAX HIKE

Aurora residents are in line for a nearly 26 percent tax rate increase under the town's tentative 2001 budget -- believed to be the largest hit since the mid-1980s, when the town underwent revaluation.

The proposed $2 million general-fund budget calls for a tax rate of $2.62 per $1,000 of assessed valuation -- up by 54 cents from the current rate of $2.08, and by 57 cents from the 1999 rate of $2.05.

Town leaders largely blame the increase on dwindling surplus money in various accounts that had been used for many years to offset the tax rates, which have remained relatively stable or increased minimally over the past several years.

"We've been going heavy on using our surpluses up and have kind of had to bite the bullet," Councilman Millard A. Irving said in an interview Tuesday. "We didn't have a choice. We kind of have to level off that surplus. The fund balance can't go much lower because you keep doing that, and in a few years, you won't have any."

During former Supervisor William Green's eight-year tenure, general town taxes increased by about 3 percent and part-town taxes decreased to a rate lower in 2000 than the rate in 1993. Green retired last year.

When the town recently changed accountants and hired Fox & Co., the accountants flagged the town's heavy dependence on using fund balance money, said Councilman David W. Thomason.

"They raised some red flags and noted that quite a bit of it had been chewed up," Thomason said. "Bill used a lot of fund balances in various accounts (to offset the tax rate). I think we took a little more out than we thought we did. But it was the supervisor's call as the chief financial officer."

Town officials don't expect the tax increases to be embraced. "Any time taxes go up, there's public outcry," Thomason said.

Supervisor Thomas E. Cotton declined this week to discuss the projected tax rate in his first budget since becoming supervisor in January. Instead, he said, he plans to discuss the issue in detail before the public at a meeting later in October.

In the proposed general fund, the town is applying $205,000 less in surplus money than it did for 2000. The current budget applied $385,000 to help hold taxes down, while the tentative new budget calls for just $180,000 in surplus money.

Overall, spending actually dips slightly, with the total budget pegged at $5.14 million -- about eight-tenths of 1 percent lower than the current budget of $5.18 million.

Aside from the fund balance issue, town officials say bonding $1.2 million for renovating an Oakwood Avenue building into the new Aurora Senior Citizens Center factors into the tax impact, as well as the timing of payments on the town's share of paying for police service to the village.

"I'm concerned with the senior center. It will be a little bit more expensive than we thought," Thomason said.

Under the existing contract for police services shared by the village and town, the town will be billed for $545,557 on Jan. 31 for services dating from June 1999 through May of this year.

The proposed salaries for elected officials include:

- 4 percent raises for the four councilmen, bringing their pay to $10,145 each.

- 7.6 percent raise for each of the two town justices, to $24,648.

- 4 percent raise for the supervisor, to $31,565, plus a $2,900 stipend as budget officer.

- 4 percent increase in the tax receiver's salary, to $24,100.

- 6.9 percent in the town clerk's salary, to $36,256, plus a $500 registrar's stipend.

- 4 percent increase in the highway superintendent's pay, to $48,002.

The board is expected to set a budget public hearing for Oct. 23.

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