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Niagara County proposal calls for trimming tax rate while spending more

Niagara County officials propose reducing the average tax rate to its lowest level in nearly 40 years, although spending and the amount to be collected from taxpayers would rise.

The county's tentative $359.16 million budget for next year, released Thursday, calls for spending almost $16 million more than the 2018 version. Property taxpayers would cough up 2.52 percent more than this year.

That tax levy increase, however, would remain below the county's state-mandated tax cap of 2.95 percent for 2019.

The countywide average full-value tax rate would be $7.03 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. That would be 7 cents lower than the 2018 rate, which at the time was announced as the lowest since 1980.

Few taxpayers actually would pay that rate. Only two municipalities – the towns of Cambria and Lockport – are assessed at full value, according to the county Real Property Tax Services Office.

Elsewhere, the actual tax rate would depend on the individual town or city equalization rate, set by the state and based on how close the assessment roll is to full value.

For example, in 2018, despite a 17-cent reduction in the full-value rate, the county tax rate rose in all three Niagara County cities and eight of the 12 towns.

The county intends to collect almost $81.9 million in property taxes, and 94 percent of that would be spent on state-mandated costs, County Manager Richard E. Updegrove said in his budget message to the County Legislature.

Updegrove said the main reasons for the proposed 4.63 percent increase in spending also are state-mandated.

The largest increase – $6.3 million more for caring for juvenile delinquents – is tied to the "Raise the Age" law that took effect Oct. 1. Except for violent or sexual felons, it requires all offenders under 18 to be prosecuted in Family Court and sentenced as juveniles.

Until now, 16- and 17-year-olds could be prosecuted as adults and, if convicted, potentially sent to state prison instead of to juvenile facilities where counties are assessed the cost of housing them.

The county also faces a $2.6 million increase in the cost of preschool special education, Updegrove said.

Public Health Director Daniel J. Stapleton said the state-mandated services for 3- to 5-year-olds are expanding, and so are the county's costs, even though Albany reimburses 59.5 percent of the expenses.

"More kids than ever before are being diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum," Stapleton said.

About 1,100 Niagara County children are in the preschool special education program, he said.

Updegrove told the Legislature that the budget proposal includes seven new jobs in the Public Works Department so that more paving jobs can be done in-house.

Two new deputy sheriff positions would be created and assigned to work security at Social Services Department offices. State and federal reimbursements cover 75 percent of such salaries and benefits, Updegrove said.

The County Legislature will hold public hearings on the budget at 6 p.m. Dec. 4. It is scheduled to vote on the budget at 7 p.m. Dec. 11.

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