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Collins asks 3.6% boost in tax rate for county Cites lack of growth in other revenue

Erie County Executive Chris Collins rolled out his first budget Friday and said he needs about 8 percent more in property tax revenue to balance next year's books. But he cautioned that the tax bill for a home that has not been reassessed will rise only 3.6 percent.

If the Legislature approves, the average tax rate will go to $5.12 from $4.94 per $1,000 of assessed value, a rate that Collins said he intends to keep through 2012.

"I expect that the public will realize that this is a small price to pay to have a balanced budget in these economic times," said Collins, who has raised property taxes to compensate for the flat-lining sales tax income and state aid he forecast for next year.

"Everyone has pain in this budget," Collins said, explaining he's asking cultural groups to accept 5 percent less in county support and will cut almost 200 jobs, though some will be replaced with part-time posts.

He also said that on July 1 he will pull the county out of the landmark parks agreement with Buffalo because county government loses money on the deal.

He already had warned Mayor Byron W. Brown of that possibility unless the two sealed a new agreement, which they have not done. Most of the employees losing their jobs now care for Buffalo's parks and playgrounds.

Collins gives the Convention and Visitors Bureau no increase over its current $4.2 million and jettisons some programs near and dear to legislators. He, for example, will not provide $24,000 to control feral cats in Buffalo or $40,000 to assist the Hamburg Historical Society. The county doesn't help other historical societies, but Hamburg also is home to County Legislator Robert B. Reynolds, a Democrat often critical of the county executive, a Republican.

Just a few months ago, Collins had forecast that he would not need to raise the property tax rate to meet next year's needs. He figured he could capitalize on the growth in the assessment base as towns revalue properties upward and new buildings go onto the rolls.

Then the national economy started its headlong slide toward recession, and state leaders began cutting their budget in midyear, giving counties the unmistakable warning to brace themselves. The Canadian dollar has fallen against U.S. currency, so Canadians have less incentive to shop here to avoid higher taxes in Ontario.

For the first time in years, county budget officials are figuring no year-to-year growth in revenue from the county's sales tax, the highest in the state.

During last year's campaign season, Collins had told voters that his opponent, not he, was likely to raise taxes. Asked what he says now to those voters, Collins responded, "I would say the economy has caved in on us."

Collins said two of his most difficult cuts involved the jobs of a deputy commissioner of fleet services and an assistant county attorney, two appointed posts. In all, he budgeted a decline of about $6 million in full-time salaries but increased wages for regular part-time employees by about $5 million next year.

Collins said he believes the county can cut costs by replacing full-time employees with "regular part-time" workers, who can put in up to 39 hours a week but collect half of the paid time off.

Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, who endorsed Collins' conservative sales-tax forecast, wanted his aides to sit in on Collins news conference Friday but said they were barred. So he said he was waiting for the government's budget books -- usually three volumes -- to be printed Monday so he can examine the spending plan fully.

The county executive and his aides had expected to unveil the budget Monday morning. Then Collins learned The Buffalo News was poised to reveal he would propose increasing the amount raised from property taxes by 8 percent next year.

Collins instead wanted The News to focus on the projected 3.6 percent increase in the average homeowner's tax bill and summoned reporters to his offices so he could explain his budget.


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