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County boosts tax levy 2.62% Four communities will see higher rates

The Niagara County Legislature adopted a 2007 budget Tuesday that raises the amount to be collected through property taxes by 2.62 percent.

However, only four communities in the county will see higher tax rates. There will be increases in Lewiston, the Town of Niagara, Wheatfield and the City of Lockport, because their assessments do not meet full market value, in the opinion of the state Office of Real Property Tax Services.

Municipal tax rates are:

Cambria, $8.16 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, down 40 cents from 2006; Hartland, $8.15, down $1.14; Lewiston, $8.88, up 31 cents; City of Lockport, $8.68, up 12 cents; Town of Lockport, $8.17, down 40 cents; Newfane, $8.15, down 40 cents; Town of Niagara, $11.28, up 24 cents.

Also, Niagara Falls, $8.18, down 40 cents; North Tonawanda, $8.25, down 40 cents; Pendleton, $8.14, down $1.04; Porter, $8.15, down 40 cents; Royalton, $8.79, down 23 cents; Somerset, $9.44, down 21 cents; Wheatfield, $10.49, up 15 cents; Wilson, $8.16, down 40 cents.

The budget passed by a 13-6 vote. Opponents were Niagara Falls Democrats Dennis F. Virtuoso, Renae Kimble and Sean J. O'Connor; Town of Niagara Democrat Danny W. Sklarski; Lockport Democrat Harry J. Apolito; and Lockport Republican W. Keith McNall.

"It's a good, responsible budget," said Majority Leader Malcolm A. Needler, R-North Tonawanda. "Our goal has been to keep a tax increase below the inflation rate and keep a stable financial situation as compared to other governments around us."

"You're raising taxes to create a surplus," charged Minority Leader Virtuoso. "If we don't keep ignoring these [nonproperty tax] revenues, we're going to end up with a $22 million surplus instead of $20 million."

The Republican-led majority defeated all but one of the Democratic amendments, which would have wiped out the tax increase completely. Needler said some were "irresponsible."

Others would have abolished patronage jobs held by Republicans or Conservatives.

The budget totals $310.5 million. However, that figure includes $39.1 million in sales tax receipts to be shared with municipalities. Those payments were never included in the budget as expenses before.

Comparing the total spending in 2006 with the total of the same items in the new budget shows a sum of $271.4 million, an increase of 3.5 percent.

The Republican-led majority caucus passed all 16 of its own budget amendments. It added $150,000 to the $4 million appropriation from the $20 million surplus that County Manager Gregory D. Lewis proposed. It also increased the sales tax revenue estimate by $100,000 to exactly $50 million.

The Democrats had sought to hike the sales tax figure by $350,000 and cut the use of the surplus by $600,000. They would have done so by reducing the $1 million Lewis wanted to take from the surplus to bolster the county's self-insurance fund for property and casualty losses.

Virtuoso said, "You could reduce the taxes by 1 percent and still build [the fund] up."

Virtuoso also sought to do away with three of the five $40,000-a-year conflict defenders the Legislature created three months ago to represent defendants the public defender's office can't take because of conflicts of interest. He also tried to abolish the position of Legislature clerk.

However, the Republicans defeated those suggestions and gave Clerk James B. Sobczyk a $1,407 raise to more than $44,000. Lewis said its omission from his proposed budget was "a clerical error."

Virtuoso said Lewis suggested the county could get by with two conflict attorneys and the number was increased to five to pad GOP-controlled patronage. "We're saying we're going to back up the manager," Virtuoso said.

Legislature Vice Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville, said the five attorneys already have taken on 150 cases that otherwise would have been assigned to private attorneys at a state-mandated fee of $75 an hour. He said the county conflict defenders make about $30 an hour.

Virtuoso's only win was an effort to pay $10,000 in expected increases in utility costs at the Public Safety Training Center out of the Enhanced 911 tax on cell phone bills rather than property taxes.

Virtuoso wanted to reduce the gas and oil budget amount by $98,644, or 27 percent lower than Lewis' proposal.

"It would have to go up to $4 a gallon to hit that [budgeted amount]," Virtuoso argued.

"If you look at the 2006 actual numbers instead of the budgeted numbers, it's not a big increase," said Budget Director Daniel R. Huntington. He said the Public Works Department and Sheriff's Office are over budget on fuel this year.

Virtuoso also lost on his effort to remove a $125,000 increase in the contingency fund, which Lewis set at $375,000.

He withdrew a proposal to remove the 3 percent increases Lewis sought to give the "partner agencies": the NIOGA Library System, the Soil and Water Conservation District, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Niagara Community Action Program and the county Council on Aging.
The Republicans funded some of their favorite agencies: $10,000 to the YWCA of Niagara for the Commission on the Status of Women, and $5,000 each to the Erie-Niagara Regional Partnership, Old Fort Niagara, the county Federation of Conservation Clubs and the North Tonawanda History Museum; and $2,500 to Artpark.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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