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LEGISLATURE BLASTED OVER BUDGET CUTS

The Niagara County Legislature was verbally pummelled for 80 minutes Tuesday by speakers demanding restoration of budget cuts proposed in the 2003 budget.

Although the public will get its official say at a Dec. 3 public hearing on the proposed 16.1 percent property tax increase, the 113 job cuts and the rest of the proposed budget, 20 speakers ranging from a judge to AIDS victims got an early start.

Four spending areas were discussed during the public comment period: AIDS case management, the Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime program, the domestic violence intervention program and the county stipend to the Niagara County Council on Aging.

"I doubt very much those programs will be restored," said Finance Committee Chairman Daniel L. Mocniak, D-Niagara Falls. "The only possibility lies in the adoption of the (extra) 1 percent sales tax. Then it would be up to the vote of the Legislature."

The net county cost of AIDS case management next year would have been $78,990 before it fell victim to budget cuts. The county has an estimated 500 AIDS patients.

"You people have your heads in the sand when it comes to the AIDS community," said Gail Patrick of Niagara Falls, mother of an AIDS victim. "You have people living longer and dying, and more getting infected."

Budget Director Sharon Sacco said, "Nobody in Niagara County expects to do away with AIDS services."

She said the state grant that funds much of the program would probably be turned over to a not-for-profit group to operate the program at no cost to the county.

Sacco said the same is true of the domestic violence program, which would cost the county about $41,000 next year. The proposed budget cut that cost by about $78,000 by laying off three workers.

Several judges have written to the Legislature in support of the Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime program, which costs the county $107,186, a figure matched by an equivalent state grant.

Niagara Falls City Judge Robert M. Restaino told the lawmakers, "What we are doing is preventing all hell from breaking loose."

Theresa Ferrante, the program's director, said the program provides substance abuse treatment instead of jail time for nonviolent criminals. She said it saves the county and state $1 million to $2 million a year by keeping people out of jail.

Sacco said the claim is inflated.

Representatives of the Council on Aging sought restoration of their agency's $44,636 stipend. They presented a giant mock check, asserting that seniors have paid a cumulative $500 million in property taxes during their lifetimes.

The proposed $239.5 million spending plan won't be voted on until Dec. 17. The deadline for budget amendment resolutions to be submitted has been set for Dec. 6.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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