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LEGISLATORS SEE HOPE FOR INCREASE IN SALES TAX

Although it's not yet a sure thing, Niagara County officials said this week they were encouraged about increasing the sales tax in the county to 8 percent, despite the opposition of Assemblywoman Francine DelMonte, D-Niagara Falls.

County leaders have been in touch with the staff of the Assembly's Democratic leadership about how to get the bill moving without DelMonte's sponsorship.

DelMonte said Monday she opposes the increase, which she called "a temporary fix" for the county's fiscal problems.

The State Legislature must approve raising the tax by 1 percentage point, which county officials estimate would bring in enough money to avoid a property tax increase and begin rebuilding the county's reserve funds, which have been drained in recent years.

The county is more than $6 million in the hole and has had to borrow money the last two autumns to meet its payroll.

The sales tax increase also could avoid $10 million in additional budget cuts proposed this week by Majority Leader Samuel P. Granieri, D-Niagara Falls, and Legislator Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda.

The reductions would wipe out 182 county jobs, in addition to the 113 eliminated in the preliminary budget.

That $239.5 million spending plan calls for a property tax increase of 16.1 percent, which would be reduced to 3.7 percent if the Granieri-Needler package is adopted. The increase has been blamed primarily on the state-mandated Medicaid program, projected to rise by 16.25 percent from this year's budgeted figure of $32 million.

The additional cuts would include Sheriff's Department road patrols, which would be preserved only if towns agree to pay for those within their borders.

Also, all county parks would be closed; nonmandated programs in the Health Department would be eliminated; and the county would try to sell the county-owned nursing home and lease its golf course to a private operator.

But it is not yet certain that the Assembly will hold a special December session to act on the sales tax or anything else. The State Senate has scheduled a meeting for Dec. 17.

"We've been awaiting a call from the Assembly as to whether they will meet on the 16th or the 17th," County Attorney Morton H. Abramowitz said.

But just in case, the agenda for Tuesday's County Legislature meeting includes an official home rule request to the State Legislature for the sales tax increase.

"If we can't get a sponsor from our county, it would go to the (Assembly) Rules Committee, which is chaired by (Speaker Sheldon) Silver," said Legislature Chairman Bradley E. Erck.

"I have been told that they're going to introduce it if there is a special session," said Assistant County Attorney Vincent R. Ginestre. "The bill's been drawn. The state Tax Department has drawn what I am told is a technically correct bill."

The County Legislature voted, 18-1, earlier this month to ask that that bill be prepared.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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