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Legislature a vote short on hiking sales tax

The Erie County Legislature is short by one vote if it wants to raise the sales tax for 2006 and stave off a hard control board.

As the week progresses toward a climactic session Friday, the focus will be on two lawmakers who have agreed to raise the sales tax in the past but say they won't do so this time: Republican Steven P. McCarville of Orchard Park and Democrat Timothy M. Wroblew-ski of West Seneca.

"The executive branch of government has failed," Wroblewski said. "I am not in favor of throwing more money at the problems."

Said McCarville: "I am trying to get us to a point where what we've been through isn't all for naught. I am not at the table right now in any discussion on revenue."

No lawmaker seems thrilled with County Executive Joel A. Giambra's four-year plan, which lawmakers must approve by Saturday and send to the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority. If they fail, the authority can become a hard control board, able to freeze wages, force the government to economize and essentially duplicate the Legislature's oversight role.

Giambra's four-year plan calls for a 50 percent property tax increase over two years, borrowing $46 million in expensive "deficit financing," slashing the subsidy to Erie County Medical Center and forcing towns that rely primarily on the Sheriff's Department for police protection to pay for the road patrol.

But the small towns don't like the plan, nor does the hospital. And their complaints have made a dent with the Democrats, who control the Legislature, 8-7.

Democrats also dislike deficit-financing. Interim Comptroller James M. Hartman told them borrowing $46 million will cost $66 million to repay over 13 years. Deficit financing, a one-shot revenue, also delays the day when Erie County's expenses are met by reliable, recurring income, Hartman says.

A handful of Democrats, meeting privately Monday with Hartman, agreed they want to avoid deficit borrowing and perhaps ask towns to phase in the fees they should pay for road patrols and phase out the ECMC subsidy, instead of delivering all the pain in 2006, as Giambra proposed.

"It takes time to do that," Legislature Chairman George A. Holt Jr., D-Buffalo, said of Giambra's changes. "You can't just cut people like that -- the employees, the patients, the medical staff."

Protecting ECMC and the towns, however, requires more income than Giambra's plan calls for in 2006. So legislators Monday talked of raising the sales tax from 8.25 cents on the dollar to 9 cents for next year, then letting it recede by a quarter of a percentage point annually, returning to 8.25 percent by 2009.

The property tax would then gradually increase over those four years to supplement the waning sales tax income.

It will be difficult to pull off. If the Legislature tells the control board it wants to raise the sales tax to balance the plan, it will need to do so with 10 votes, not just a simple majority of eight. But the Legislature fell into gridlock when Giambra proposed a penny increase in the sales tax for 2005.

Along with McCarville, four other Republicans are still lined up against Giambra's plan and any suggestion to raise taxes: Denise Marshall of Lancaster and Elise Cusack, Barry A. Weinstein and Michael H. Ranzenhofer, all of Amherst.

Republicans Jeanne Z. Chase of Evans and Charles M. Swanick of Kenmore have voted to raise the sales tax in the past. Holt is counting on them to do so again.

The Legislature rescheduled its vote from Thursday to Friday, when Swanick will have returned from military duty.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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