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Hamburg roads chief calls budget insufficient

Hamburg Supervisor Steven Walters was rocked back on defense, protecting his zero tax-increase budget proposal.

On the attack was Highway Superintendent Jim Connolly, insisting that the budget skimps on road clearing supplies as winter nears.

The battle flared Monday night in Town Hall, as officials argued over how to absorb sharply rising prices for asphalt, fuel and salt.

"These are not policy choices I'm describing," Connolly said. "The [cost of] materials and equipment we use . . . have gone through the roof."

Asphalt has doubled, and salt is up 30 percent from a year ago, he said, in addition to higher costs for fuel.

Walters fired back that the Highway Department, which receives an 8 percent increase in next year's budget, needs to put off lower-priority work instead of hoisting a larger burden onto taxpayers.

Connolly's spending request "would have meant a 10 percent increase in property taxes," Walters said. "That kind of jump . . . would drive people out of this community; it would drive businesses out of this community."

The Town Board meeting represented Round Two of the dispute. It began last week, when Connolly and 17 other highway officials from around Erie County held a news conference to warn that their salt barns could could be running low this winter. Walters bristled at that, calling it a scare tactic.

Towns around the county are struggling with the same squeeze as they work to pass their 2009 budgets by Nov. 20.

Hamburg's Highway Department will receive $321,000 more next year under the proposed budget, Walters said. That comes on top of increases averaging $128,000 a year for the past several years.

The department is responsible for maintaining about 150 miles of road with a budget of about $5 million.

Funding from past bond issues has run out this year, Connolly said, putting the squeeze on funds at the same time that commodity prices are spiking.

He spent $286,000 on salt this year, more than the $250,000 allotted in next year's budget, even though next year's prices are higher.

Budgeted funds for repaving, about $280,000, will only cover 1.25 miles of road, he said.

At that rate, "it would take 120 years to pave all the streets."

Connolly said he wasn't for raising taxes, but rather moving funds from other sources such as unexpected video lottery payments from the state.

Walters responded that, as the economy moves into a recession, it may be necessary to put off repaving a year or two, until taxpayers are more flush -- and perhaps materials prices are lower. He noted that oil has fallen sharply from its peak in the summer -- when budget projections were drawn up -- which should help moderate prices for fuel and asphalt.

In other action, the board:

*Took a step toward getting out of the water business, approving spending nearly $2 million on water district improvements. The project is part of a $5 million overhaul necessary for the merger of the town water system with the county Water Authority. The remainder of the costs will come from two bond issues, to be considered at hearings Nov. 10 and Dec. 8.

*Approved an increase of $86,901 to a contract for Modern Construction for the closure-maintenance project at the former town landfill on Lakeview Road. The change order reflects unanticipated costs for topsoil. Funds are available from bonds issued for the capital project. The change raises the total cost to $877,259, or $19,000 more than Woodstone Earth Construction had bid.

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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