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BUDGET SHIFTS TO LEGISLATORS <br> GIAMBRA TO LET LAWMAKERS CHOOSE CUTS OR TAX INCREASES

County Executive Joel A. Giambra said Tuesday he will let the County Legislature decide whether to accept the measures he has threatened in recent weeks -- closing libraries, cutting off aid to cultural organizations and reducing the county payroll -- or raise property taxes.

"We are heading for a showdown and a shutdown," Giambra told The Buffalo News editorial board.

He wants to add 1 cent per dollar to the sales tax -- bringing it to 9.25 percent -- saying he is frustrated that neither county lawmakers nor state legislators from Western New York will back that solution to an estimated $130 million deficit the county faces next year.

The pain, he said, will be felt in several arenas of the government, including his own office, which will shrink from 15 budgeted jobs to possibly four employees.

He said he also will cut the number of government cars, partly in response to critics who call the fleet lavish for a county facing a deficit next year.

Because the State Legislature expects its majority-party members to back requests from their counties, the county won't get approval to raise its sales tax unless Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, and Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, go along.

Tokasz said Giambra has not proved the need, nor has the County Legislature spoken on the matter.

Giambra, a Republican, said Volker is angry with him for trying to find a candidate to oppose him this election year.

"Now it's political payback time," Giambra said.

Volker has not returned several telephone messages seeking comment.

Since 2000, Giambra and county lawmakers have gone without a tax increase and leaned on savings accounts to pay everyday expenses, especially the rising costs of Medicaid. Now, the piggy bank's ribs are showing, and the government, like that of many other counties in the state, needs a new river of cash.

Even if Giambra could win eight votes in the County Legislature's Democratic caucus, a sales tax increase will need a two-thirds majority of 10.

Minority leader Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-East Amherst, said he is in no rush to raise taxes and is willing to see if lawmakers can close the $130 million deficit with cuts in spending.

"There has to be a reduction in the level of services that Erie County has provided in the past," he said Tuesday. "That's what we are going to grapple with during our hearings."

Majority Leader Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, said Giambra hit on grim themes Sunday when he met with her and two other Legislature Democrats -- Chairman George A. Holt Jr. and Demone A. Smith, both of Buffalo.

Giambra told them he has been given no choice but to raise property taxes or flatten the roughly $127 million in general fund spending he can control, because he can't include new sales tax money to balance the budget.

Marinelli said she and some other Democrats aren't ready to say which they prefer until they have more information and see the budget Giambra must propose by Nov. 10.

He says he will try to beat that deadline by at least a few days so lawmakers have more time to consider it. Lawmakers must pass a version by Dec. 7 or Giambra's proposal becomes law.

Giambra contends that the sales tax would be the best way to preserve services and avoid the 100 percent property tax increase that he predicts would sap the regional economy. He prefers an additional 1 cent per dollar, which would raise about $125 million a year, because it would be paid not only by local residents, but also by tourists and fans attending Buffalo Bills games or Sabres events.

Still, the property tax would weigh in the calculation when tax-watchdog groups rank the tax burden in each state. The amount paid by New Yorkers ranks at the top year after year. In 2000, the tax burden per person stood at 48 percent above the national average.

Looking only at property taxes, Erie County is 42 percent above the national average for all local governments.

Researchers with Albany think-tanks say property taxes are a major factor forcing upstate residents to seek opportunity in other regions of the country.

Medicaid often is criticized as the factor driving up property taxes, but the Business Council of New York's Public Policy Institute says upstate New York's high number of local government workers does the most damage.

The institute says that cutting total Medicaid spending in Erie and Niagara counties by 10 percent would save almost $60 million a year in state and local taxes.

But eliminating 4,300 above-the-norm local government employees would save almost $200 million, the institute said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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