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Legislature to meet on 2007 budget

LOCKPORT -- The Niagara County Legislature's Republican-led majority caucus wants to slightly trim the property tax increase in the proposed 2007 county budget.

The Democratic minority wants to wipe it out.

And County Manager Gregory D. Lewis is against any and all budget amendments.

That's the outlook as the Legislature prepares for its budget adoption vote Tuesday. Lewis' proposed budget would increase the tax levy by 3 percent, although tax rates will fall in all but four municipalities.

A package of amendments, approved by the Administration Committee Tuesday with the support of the majority caucus, would reduce the levy increase to 2.6 percent.

Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso has his own package of 11 amendments to push on the floor Tuesday. He said if they were approved along with the Republican amendments, the levy increase would disappear.

But the chances of that happening are almost non-existent, because the Democratic package includes measures that would wipe out some patronage jobs currently controlled by the GOP. The Republicans and their allies have a 14-5 voting advantage.

As for Lewis, he said Friday, "I think the tentative [version] is a real responsible budget. . . . I would not recommend any of the [budget] resolutions at all."

"Why raise taxes if you don't have to?" Virtuoso asked. "We heard the public loud and clear."

Speakers at the Dec. 5 public hearing on the budget loudly condemned the tax increase.

The sales tax revenue estimates, often tinkered with in an effort to reduce property tax rates, are at issue again. The estimated sales tax revenue in Lewis' budget is $49.9 million. Republicans want to raise that by $100,000, but Virtuoso wants a $350,000 increase.

Budget Director Daniel R. Huntington said, "Based on what our projections are, our number is realistic." He said he can live with the $100,000 increase, but not the $350,000.

Virtuoso also proposes to reduce the amount Lewis wants to take from the county's surplus to bolster the self-insurance fund for property and casualty losses. Lewis wants to appropriate $1 million; Virtuoso would cut that to $400,000.

"I thought $1 million at one time was too much," Virtuoso said. "It should have been done in increments."

"I think that's irresponsible," Majority Leader Malcolm A. Needler said of the proposed cut.

Virtuoso is proposing to do away with the Legislature clerk and three of the five conflict defenders that were hired in September to take criminal cases public defenders could not because of conflicts of interest.

In previous years, Lewis unsuccessfully sought to abolish the clerk's post. This year, he didn't bother to include that proposal.

"I'm still willing to give it a try for a year," Virtuoso said. Firing Clerk James B. Sobczyk would save $63,390 in salary and benefits. The Republicans, on the other hand, have an amendment to give Sobczyk a $1,407 raise from his scheduled 2007 salary of $42,935.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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