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The Niagara County Legislature's Republican majority is renewing its push for a 1 percent sales tax increase as a means of reducing property taxes by an estimated 16.6 percent next year.

Even though this is an election year for the legislators, Majority Leader Shirley G. Urtel, R-Cambria, said Tuesday that the Republicans are ready to make the case for the 8 percent sales tax.

"We're looking at millions of dollars in new expenses," Urtel said. "We think anyone with a budgetary conscience has to be in favor of it."

Asked whether it is a political gamble, Urtel answered, "I think failing to make a prudent budget when you have another revenue source out there would be more of a political faux pas."

Legislator Lee Simonson, R-Lewiston, made a presentation to his colleagues in which he reiterated his arguments from October in favor of increasing Niagara County's current sales tax of 7 percent. That move briefly gained political momentum that faltered when some Democrats seemed to favor a reduction.

Urtel said she hoped for Democratic support again, but the Democrats did not sound as if they were willing to go along.

"The (Republican) majority's answer: raising taxes," Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said with disdain.

"I'm against it unless you can guarantee me they're not going to waste it," said Minority Leader Robert L. Seger, D-North Tonawanda.

Simonson estimated that the county would face $12 million in new state-mandated expenses in 2002 that would result in a property tax increase of more than 20 percent next year if all other spending were to remain the same.

But he said that if the County Legislature passes the 8 percent sales tax this year and gets the State Legislature to approve it, the county would rake in enough revenue to produce a 16.6 percent property tax cut in 2002, even taking into consideration the new state-mandated costs.

"I can only hope for one of two things," Simonson said. "The state eliminates the mandates so we can operate, or they let us raise the sales tax so we can pay for their mandates."

The gravest problem, according to Simonson, is Medicaid, which he said "is swallowing this county whole."

The county's share of the health insurance program this year is $28 million, which accounts for 52 percent of the property tax. Five years ago, Medicaid ate up 42 percent of the property tax pie.

Simonson said the county has to act by this summer so the State Legislature can vote before its session ends. If those things happen, the sales tax could rise Dec. 1.

Seger said the Republicans "should be sitting down with the state delegation and telling them: 'This is what we want. We have a tight budget.' "

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