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Budget freezes property taxes in city; Also will offer aid to cultural groups

Homeowners' property tax rates would be frozen at current levels and the city would provide assistance to some cultural groups for the first time in a decade under a spending plan that Mayor Byron W. Brown is expected to unveil today. Commercial property owners would see a slight decline in their tax rates.

Some sources said the administration has also been seriously weighing the notion of including in the budget a controversial plan to install cameras at many of Buffalo's biggest intersections to nab red-light runners. For more than a year, the administration has been reviewing other cities' experiences with red-light cameras.

Brown has been an avid supporter of red-light cameras since taking office in 2006, claiming they would reduce accidents. The initial plan was to install 50 cameras at busy intersections, a move that some estimate would generate at least $2.75 million in annual revenue.

As for the property tax freeze, Brown announced during his State of the City speech in February that he wants to hold the line on tax rates for three years. Sources indicate that the new plan would hold the line on residential rates while decreasing commercial rates by 1.3 percent.

A majority of Common Council members told The Buffalo News on Thursday that while some changes might be made to the mayor's spending plan, they are committed to making sure tax rates for homeowners and businesses are not increased.

"People constantly tell us to hold the line on taxes," said Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith. "We hear that all the time, and that's what we all want."

Freezing tax rates would mean that more than 97 percent of all property owners would not see tax increases in the fiscal year that starts July 1. A couple thousand property owners who saw their assessed values increase this year would still face higher tax bills even with an imposed cap. The increases would vary, depending on how much their assessments went up.

While the mayor declined to divulge many details about his spending plan, he confirmed that one new initiative would aim to help many nonprofit city-based cultural groups that found their funding from Erie County eliminated this year. Council members have called on the mayor to find a way to help about 30 groups that lost $300,000 in county aid.

"I've tried to creatively address that request on a one-time basis," Brown said.

For many years, the city had provided grants to dozens of cultural groups. It halted the practice shortly after a fiscal crisis erupted nearly a decade ago.

Some sources expected the plan to propose using some revenue from a new red-light cameras initiative to help cultural groups. But mayoral spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge would not confirm that the administration is poised to move forward with a plan that has been under consideration for nearly two years.

"We have absolutely no comment," DeGeorge said.

Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said he was unaware that the upcoming budget might call for moving the red-light cameras plan forward. But Derenda reiterated his support for such a program, saying he believes it will enhance public safety.

Opponents have argued that the cameras might spur an increase in rear-end collisions. Others have expressed privacy concerns and fears that some motorists might be targeted as they legally drive through amber signals.

The Council will have nearly three weeks to review the proposed budget and make changes, but most lawmakers said they don't envision a scenario where property tax rates would increase.

"We have record surpluses, and even with the outstanding liabilities we face, I don't think there's any justification for tax increases," said Council Finance Committee Chairman Michael P. Kearns of South.

North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. expressed similar views.

"Taxes are among the key issues in Buffalo -- and across New York State, for that matter," Golombek said.

All nine Council members face re-election in November, making it even less likely that any budget amendments would be advanced that would trigger tax increases.

City Hall sources said they also expect Buffalo's unpopular garbage user fee to remain unchanged in the coming year.

The city's funding to the school district will likely be reviewed during budget deliberations. The city's $70.3 million contribution to schools has remained unchanged for four consecutive years. The appropriation represents nearly half of all the money Buffalo raises from property taxes.

Council President David A. Franczyk, of the Fillmore District, said he does not think lawmakers will push to increase city aid to schools.

"They seem to be in some disarray," Franczyk said of the school district. "They have to get their own house in order. I've never believed that money is a panacea."

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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