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TAX HIKE MAY DEFEAT NEW BUDGET

It is the second largest increase in school taxes in six years, in a district that has rejected at least one big hike before.

No wonder Depew school officials are on the nervous side these days. The district's proposed $31.10 million budget, which goes to voters June 3, carries a 7.3 percent tax increase.

"Seven percent for anybody, especially those on a limited income, is hard," said School Board member Daniel Beutler. "I know that."

The proposed budget nudges spending up by just 1.5 percent -- less than the cost of living. But district officials say they were pushed to a big tax increase by a loss of about $500,000 in state aid, rising expenses and a decision to make no cuts in either the academic or extracurricular programs.

"Our kids are achieving, they are learning, they are meeting the new standards," Superintendent Robert F. DeFilippo said Thursday during a budget presentation. "That comes at a cost."

It could have been worse, he noted. Depew originally lost almost $1 million in state aid. The Legislature's override of Gov. George E. Pataki's budget restored about $500,000 of that.

Half was grant money and could only be used to restore prekindergarten, reduce class sizes at Cayuga Heights Elementary School and do minor maintenance.

The rest went to reducing the tax increase, bringing it from its original 8.8 percent to the current 7.3 percent.

Still, the tax increase is the fifth highest among Erie County's 27 public school districts. And it has already been a hard year for taxpayers in Depew.

Depew Village just recently raised taxes 9.73 percent -- wiping out eight years worth of tax cuts. Town taxes jumped, too. Those living in the Cheektowaga portion of the village saw a 13.3 percent tax increase, while those in Lancaster got an 11.4 percent increase.

School officials know fed-up taxpayers often take their anger out on school budgets, since those are the only spending plans on which they can vote. And the last time Depew proposed a budget with a big tax increase -- in 1999, when it asked for a 14 percent hike -- voters overwhelmingly rebelled.

This time around, DeFilippo said, more than half of the proposed 7.3 percent tax hike was due to the loss of state aid, "something out of our control."

For Depew, like other districts statewide, the rest of the tax increase stemmed from hefty increases in some big ticket items. For instance, pension costs saw a two-fold increase to reach $244,598 in Depew. Health insurance jumped 18 percent.

Officials said they refinanced bonds to save money, and that materials and supplies have been frozen for at least six years. Nor will the budget include upgrades for technology or more funds for buildings and grounds.

"It is a frugal budget," DeFilippo said.

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

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