A property tax increase in the 2002 Niagara County budget is a foregone conclusion, according to County Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster.
"I don't know how you can avoid it," Burmaster said.
Last week, the Legislature's Finance Committee set a goal of holding that tax increase to 5 percent.
County Budget Director Sharon Sacco has provided projections of increased expenses, primarily in state-mandated programs such as Medicaid, that would increase the county's costs by $12 million next year. That would work out to a property tax increase of more than 23 percent if there were no corresponding cutbacks in county spending.
Burmaster said, "I want to see a 5, 10, 15 and 20 percent (tax increase) scenario so I can make a reasonable decision." He said he wants department heads to hand in figures showing how much they would have to reduce their budgets to produce those results.
It does not look as if the Republicans will be able to count on many votes for a tax increase from the Democratic side of the aisle.
"We haven't discussed it," said Minority Leader Robert L. Seger, D-North Tonawanda. "I haven't supported a tax increase in the 10 years I've been here. I wasn't convinced last December (when the Legislature raised property taxes by 2.56 percent). I wasn't convinced the increase in sales tax was necessary."
Burmaster said, "Property tax is the only answer. I don't mind cutting the government judiciously. I do mind gutting the government maliciously."
Legislator Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda, contended that he pushed for the 5 percent figure in a caucus of the Legislature's Republican majority. "I wish it were less. Under the circumstances, it was the best I could negotiate," he said.
"Mal Needler's looking for as much publicity as he can," said Burmaster, a Ransomville Republican.
The chairman said the 5 percent proposal assumes that Niagara County will get the same revenues from other sources as it did this year. He said he wants to meet with the county's state legislators to find out whether any additional help will be coming from Albany.
"I have a real problem dealing with a budget where we have only a cost figure. I need to know what the revenues are, too," Burmaster said.
"The state's telling me they don't know," Seger said, and with the state budget process at a standstill, it may be quite a while before anyone does know whether there will be any relief from mandated costs.
The Legislature considered increasing the sales tax by 1 percentage point, but that was defeated in the May 1 meeting. "It's dead for this year," Burmaster said.
On the bright side, Burmaster said, if a Niagara Falls casino becomes a reality next year, "I've got to believe our sales tax revenues are going to be up. I think we're going to be sitting on a gold mine in 2002."
He acknowledged that the City of Niagara Falls pre-empts the local share of all sales taxes at places of amusement in the city but said that the spin-off from a casino would leave the county a winner, too.
Legislators of both parties bragged when the county either froze or cut property taxes for six consecutive years, but Burmaster now refers to that 1995-2000 period as "the sins of the past come back to haunt us."
Despite the increase imposed for this year, the county is still collecting less in property taxes than it did in 1994.
Burmaster said he is reluctant to order layoffs of county employees. He said the Legislature made a mistake when it decided last week to spend $1.1 million in tobacco bond revenue to buy nine new highway trucks so it could give nine others to the cities. The demand for the used trucks became a divisive issue in the Legislature.
"How can I go to the employees and tell them I'm taking their jobs away because of a $12 million shortfall, and then turn around and give $1 million away?" Burmaster asked.