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Panel supports keeping sales tax at 8% in county Full Legislature expected to vote next week to ask state to extend extra cent per dollar for Medicaid

Niagara County will ask the State Legislature to keep the sales tax in the county at 8 percent through November 2009.

The County Legislature's Administration Committee voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of a home rule request to keep the extra percentage point in effect.

The full Legislature is expected to approve the request Tuesday. Once it wins state approval, the County Legislature will have to take another vote to actually impose the tax, currently scheduled to expire Nov. 30.

Unlike other counties that have no restrictions, Niagara County is required to spend all of the additional cent per dollar on its share of Medicaid expenses.

The "Medicaid penny," as some legislators call it, was imposed in March 2003 and brought in $23.4 million last year. But Budget Director Daniel R. Huntington said Niagara County will spend an estimated $40 million on Medicaid this year -- the largest item in the county budget.

"I think this is a nonpartisan issue because of the reality. It's been incorporated in the budget for several years," County Manager Gregory D. Lewis said. "It can't be extracted without us being unable to protect the public safety and welfare."

If the additional sales tax were allowed to expire, the county would have to raise property taxes 32 percent to make up the revenue, Huntington said.

Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, said some legislators habitually voted against the extra sales tax but don't provide any suggestions on how to do without it. He urged that any such ideas be presented early enough for thorough review rather than being offered as floor amendments.

"There doesn't seem to be much room for rational debate," Lewis said. "It could be a political debate."

"It's awfully smart to initiate action now," said Legislature Vice Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield. "[The State Legislature] might not go into session this fall." Right now, the Albany session is expected to end in June.

On another topic, the board gave a friendly reception to representatives from Christian Academy of Western New York, which is offering $375,000 for 16.5 acres of county-owned land on Davison Road.

But the committee delayed action until April 24 so members could read a packet of literature the school presented.

The school, which has been renting space in the Niagara Frontier Mall on Main Street in Lockport for 14 years, has 155 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade, according to Patricia A. Poeller, school administrator.

The purchase would include the former Switzer Building, once the county infirmary and later the headquarters of the Social Services Department.

It would be converted into a school.

"They're looking to buy this building because it gives them a great opportunity to expand their school," said Kathleen Gaines, attorney for the school.

She said members of Victory Christian Center, a church that once was formally affiliated with the school, have pledged to fill in any financing shortfalls if grants the school seeks are not received.

"We are not a church school. We are an independent nonpublic school," Poeller said.

Lewis said the purchase price will be paid in full at closing.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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