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It was, as someone once said, deja vu all over again.

The Niagara County Legislature on Tuesday voted 12-7 to ask the State Legislature for permission to keep the county's sales tax rate at its current 8.25 percent.

The vote came seven weeks after the Legislature passed the exact same vote. Majority Leader Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda, said the only difference this time was the inclusion of the exact Senate and Assembly bill numbers, requested by Albany for legal reasons.

"Whatever way they want it, we'll pass it so we don't have a $23 million hole (in the budget)," Needler said.

That's how much the additional 1 percentage point of sales tax, first imposed in 2003, brings in annually.

The state authorization to charge that 1 percent expires Nov. 30. The county is seeking to renew it for two years, through November 2007.

The opponents were the six members of the Democratic caucus and Legislator Danny W. Sklarski, a Town of Niagara Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans.

The extra sales tax is devoted to Medicaid and this year covers about half of its cost to Niagara County.

"I would be very interested to see a plan for the seven 'no' votes to fill the (budget) hole," Needler taunted. "Please stand up straight and don't hide behind me for your constituents."

Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said the county doesn't have to act on this now.

"It's a little too early. We don't know the impact the state budget will have," he said, suggesting the county might be able to afford to reduce the sales tax rate by one-half a percentage point if things go well.

But Needler said he's been informed by State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, that the Legislature intends to break for the year in June.

The County Legislature will have to take a final vote to impose the extended sales tax once the bill passes in Albany.

On another topic, the Legislature ratified a one-year contract with Erie County to continue doing autopsies of Niagara County bodies at Erie County Medical Center, but at an increased price.

The new deal calls for a payment of $650 per autopsy. The old contract, which ran out Dec. 31, charged $60,000 a year for the first 140 bodies and $350 per case thereafter.

Niagara County ordered about 175 autopsies last year. They would have cost $72,250 under the old contract, but would cost $113,750 now.

"It's not a savings. The problem is, Erie County has cornered the market on that," County Manager Gregory D. Lewis said. But he said it might be even more expensive for Niagara County to hire doctors and contract with a hospital to do its own autopsies.


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