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Chautauqua County's Democratic lawmakers are calling for a 1.25 percent increase in the county sales tax as part of the 2005 proposed budget to avoid a significant property tax increase.

That sales tax increase, from 7.25 to 8.50, would bring in $8.5 million in additional revenue, according to Legislature Chairman Keith D. Ahlstrom, D-Dunkirk.

"It really comes down to property tax or sales tax," he said late Friday in a telephone interview. "We feel that the sales tax is the least offensive."

Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra is seeking a 1 percent increase in the county sales tax -- bringing it to 9.25 percent -- to help offset a $130 million deficit, but influential Western New York lawmakers have said he hasn't proved the need. Giambra has said the sales tax increase would yield another $125 million.

Ahlstrom empathizes with Erie County's plight.

"I understand it fully. It's just a matter of the scale of the problem, based on population," he said. "We're in exactly the same spot that they are."

Giambra could not be reached for comment late Friday.

The $200.5 million budget proposal prepared by the Chautauqua County Legislature's Democratic Caucus, unveiled Thursday, also calls for $2 million in spending cuts.

One of the most significant is a $400,000 blow to Chautauqua Area Rural Transit System (CARTS), the county-wide transportation system.

Chautauqua County's share of Medicaid expenses, for example, is projected at $33.5 million next year; it was $13.1 million in 1999.

"Our total Medicaid bill is eating up 75 percent of our property tax," Ahlstrom said.

Besides Medicaid expenses, the extra sales tax revenue sought for Chautauqua County -- and which requires permission from the State Legislature -- is needed to help pay for road and bridge projects, capital projects and a reserve fund for bond indebtedness.

A significant difference between Chautauqua and Erie counties is that Chautauqua County lawmakers fully expect their state representatives will back the increase, in order for it to go before the State Legislature for a vote.

Ahlstrom said he talked to the area's two representatives last month, and "We believe that we have their support in carrying these bills."


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