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For the first time in three years, a majority of Amherst lawmakers Monday agreed on a town budget, passing a $111.6 million spending plan, 4-3.

Following a three-hour meeting, Town Board members adopted Supervisor Susan J. Grelick's proposed budget for next year after making a handful of changes. The budget boosts overall spending by 8.3 percent and calls for a 10.9 percent hike in the total amount to be raised through property taxes.

Grelick -- whose 2003 and 2004 proposed budgets were enacted by default -- was elated.

"We have a budget!" she cheered loudly as the meeting adjourned.

Her enthusiasm was not contagious.

Republican Council Members Shelly Schratz, William A. O'Loughlin and William L. Kindel accused Grelick, a Democrat, of trying to mislead taxpayers by calling attention to the town's new average general tax rate -- up less than 1 percent -- instead of the jump in the amount to be raised through property taxes -- up almost 11 percent from the current $67.7 million to $75.1 million in 2005.

The budget relies heavily on a surge in Amherst's property values, which is expected to produce enough new property taxes to pay for mandatory increases in pay, pensions and health insurance for town workers -- while holding down the tax rate. According to O'Loughlin, this makes for a "stealth tax" he called "diabolical" that will hit hard for taxpayers whose properties have recently been reassessed. Figures show the value of the town's tax base jumped by 5.5 percent, meaning some taxpayers will pay significantly higher tax bills next year even though the average tax rate remains nearly steady.

The average general town tax rate will rise from the current $6.11 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to about $6.23, an increase of 0.74 percent. That does not include taxes for lighting, garbage disposal, sewers, storm drainage and other special districts.

Board members managed to find enough money in the budget to restore funds for equipment needed by town engineers as well as a $2.4 million bond that will be used to buy heavy equipment for the Highway Department, replacing vehicles that date to the 1980s.

Another amendment by board members reinstated a $100,000 cut in the town's subsidy to the Amherst Museum, which had been slated for an even bigger fund slash.

Increases are expected for health insurance, up 7.5 percent; retirement benefits, up 16 percent; salaries, which have averaged about 3 percent per year; and workers' compensation, up 12 percent, according to town officials.


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