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Chautauqua County legislators will begin budget deliberations in earnest next month on County Executive Mark W. Thomas' proposed $165.5 million spending proposal for 2001.

The Legislature on Wednesday night approved establishment of a budget-reconciliation committee that will develop the final proposal to be voted on in late October.

Thomas' proposal, released this week, includes a nearly $13 million spending increase, but it would cut the tax rate to $7.70 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, from $8.14. The county executive proposes keeping the tax levy at $37.4 million.

Legislature Chairwoman Jane Fagerstrom, D-Jamestown, said Wednesday night that the proposal addresses what lawmakers wanted -- a lower tax rate and holding the levy stable.

"I think that's significant, particularly when we have brought in some work-force-development training for 'skill' training, and the Jamestown Community College tech center," Fagerstrom said of two initiatives included in the spending plan.

She acknowledged that she had been worried about the budget because those two proposals alone add just over $1 million to the fiscal package.

The budget-reconciliation committee will be headed up by Fagerstrom, and include the chairman and ranking minority member of each standing committee.

Even though much of the spending increase is taken care of by increased state and federal aid and $2.3 million in tobacco-settlement money, Minority Leader James Caflisch, R-Clymer, said he has concerns about the budget:

"If state and federal aid were to drop, certainly tobacco monies won't last far into the future. . . . So I think we have to look . . . to the future and see what we can do.

"Certainly, I would like to see more money returned to the taxpayer in these good times, and I think that would be an additional benefit and boon to the economy."

Fagerstrom said the panel has begun work on trying to reduce spending. She noted that Sheriff Joseph Gerace's budget request came in about 10 percent above that for the current year but that lawmakers already have been able to cut that to about 6 percent.

The Legislature will hold a public hearing on the budget at 2 p.m. Oct. 25. A final vote is expected after the hearing.

In other action, the Legislature approved the county's farmland-protection plan. Legislator and longtime dairy farmer Fred Croscut, R-Sherman, said, "It's a living, working document, and I think it'll be on the shelf as resource and reference material for the media, us as legislators and the dairy farmers."

Croscut said the document will be instrumental in freeing up possible state and federal money to help pay for work on water quality, promotion of agribusiness or preservation of land.

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