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Residents get explanations from officials about budget

A small number of city residents turned out Thursday to grill the Lackawanna School District's business manager on the particulars of a proposed 2012-13 budget adopted by the School Board on April 19.

The $45.3 million spending plan is $670,000 more than the current year's budget, an increase of 1.1 percent. The estimated tax rate increase is 19 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, to $10.54 per $1,000.

The proposed tax levy is $8.59 million, a 2 percent increase over the current budget and under the tax cap threshold set by the state.

Sam Masry, district business manager, provided a recap of items in the proposed budget, which includes $945,500 in staff cuts, as well as an $457,402 increase in spending for wages.

The district's total cost for salaries would rise to $17.9 million, from nearly $17.5 million in 2011-12. Benefits costs would rise to $8.3 million, from $7.7 million.

Two residents, Joseph E. DiCenzo and Andrea Z. Haxton, asked the bulk of the questions during the 80-minute public hearing, which was attended by fewer than 10 residents.

DiCenzo challenged Masry on the necessity for the $6.7 million surplus contained in the 2012-13 spending plan, which DiCenzo insisted is excessive for a district the size of Lackawanna.

"We're always running a surplus of around $7 million," DiCenzo said. "If you dropped $2 million or $3 million off [the surplus], you would be in line with the City of Tonawanda, Depew and all these other smaller districts."

Masry replied that several similar local school districts carrying smaller surpluses last year are now in dire straits.

Haxton inquired about the School Board's plans in the event the proposed budget is not approved by voters May 15.

"Until we are faced with that, we really don't know," replied School Board President John W. Makeyenko.

Makeyenko, Kenneth S. Motyka and Lisa M. Friend were the only board members among the seven who attended Thursday's public hearing.

District resident George W. Halsey questioned Masry over whether the current budget includes funding for 11 polling places instead of for only the four the board has authorized to be in operation May 15. Masry replied yes but noted that there would be savings by having only four polling places open -- one in each of the city's four wards.

Halsey later said that any savings would be minuscule and would come at the expense of voters in the 1st Ward, which has a large population of African-Americans and Arab-Americans who lack convenient access to the designated 1st Ward polling place.

"There are no sidewalks or pedestrian bridge, and a lot of people don't have transportation to get there," he said. " They're inconveniencing just the minority community."

Voters in the other three wards will have access to polling places that are centrally located and without any barriers, Halsey said.