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GRELICK'S 'GOOD NEWS' BUDGET IS NOT WITHOUT ITS CRITICS

Amherst Supervisor Susan J. Grelick opened a public hearing Monday by describing her proposed $111.6 million budget for next year as "good news" for taxpayers.

Grelick said Amherst's tax rate will hold nearly steady for 2005. It marks the fifth time she has accomplished such a feat in eight years in office, she said in a letter to taxpayers.

About 50 people attending the meeting -- many of them supporters of the Amherst Museum -- seemed to accept Grelick's assessment.

But the message was too rosy for her Republican critics.

"I think it's time you admit there's a problem," said Council Member Shelly Schratz, one of a trio of Republican board members who criticized Grelick's proposed budget and noted that the real tax increase for next year is nearly 11 percent.

Board members are scheduled to vote Monday on a final budget. But Council Member William Kindel reminded those in attendance that board members refused to endorse Grelick's last two annual spending plans, allowing them to be enacted by default.

This year, there's not enough in the budget for new highway equipment, and the town continues to rely on spending down some reserve fund balances, Kindel and others complained.

In particular, critics said Grelick refuses to acknowledge that her spending plan calls for an 11 percent increase in the total amount of taxes to be collected, meaning some taxpayers face hefty increases because their properties have been reassessed.

"I call it the stealth tax," Council Member William A. O'Loughlin said, adding that increasing property values allows the town to collect more taxes.

In some cases, the tax bite could be as much as 45 percent next year for some property owners, he claimed.

"And they have to be told that. If we're going to tax them . . . we have to tell them that," O'Loughlin said.

Kindel agreed, saying, "We are now assessing our taxpayers more. . . . I'm not proud of that. . . . The bottom line is here we are living on borrowed time."

Grelick argued that nearly half of the increase in assessments were because of new commercial development, but her critics were not swayed.

Supporters of the Amherst Museum, led by former Town Attorney James Nesper, urged the board to restore or at least freeze the town's nearly $700,000 annual subsidy to the museum. By doing so, the museum will have a chance to become accredited, which will help in attracting outside grants, he said.

The board voted early this year to cut the subsidy by $600,000 over the next three years, but Grelick -- a strong museum backer -- did not include the first $200,000 increment in the proposed budget, forcing board members to make the cuts themselves.

e-mail: tdolan@buffnews.com

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