By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The Niagara County Legislature adopted a $322 million 2013 budget late Tuesday. The spending plan will drive a modest tax rate increase for most taxpayers.
Legislators’ last-minute changes to County Manager Jeffrey Glatz’s proposed budget resulted in a 2013 property tax levy of $73 million — $1.3 million more than this year’s levy but still within the state’s annual so-called tax cap.
Changes to Glatz’s proposal including the raising of anticipated non-property tax income lines by about $1 million, and reduction of projected outlays — such as contingency funding and overtime across departments — by $260,000.
The adopted budget drives an average county tax rate of $7.72 per $1,000 of assessed value, a 9-cent or 1.16 percent increase over the 2012 rate. According to Real Property Director John Shoemaker, rates for individual municipalities are:
Cambria, $7.73; Hartland, $7.74; Lewiston, $9.43; Lockport town, $7.75; Newfane, $8.05; Niagara, $13.16; Pendleton, $7.96; Porter, $8.14; Royalton, $7.89; Somerset, $7.73; Wheatfield, $11.22; Wilson, $8.40; Lockport city, $7.74; Niagara Falls, $8.43; and North Tonawanda, $8.03.
Thirty-eight budget amendments were pitched, 25 of them by the three-member Democratic minority caucus. Taken together, the amendments would have produced a 0-percent tax levy increase, by cutting spending and tweaking non-property tax revenues to the tune of $2.6 million, according to Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls.
About half of the Democratic amendments were sunk by 3-12 votes against, including the minority’s annual call to eliminate three Republican-controlled patronage jobs/offices — the legislature’s clerk and public information officer, and the county auditor — for savings of $271,000 on salaries, fringe benefits and office costs. As each proposed cut was taken up, GOP legislators went to bat for PIO Chris Peck, Clerk MaryJo Tamburlin and Auditor James Sobczyk, pointedly praising each appointee’s contributions to county government.
Also rejected by the majority were amendments to restore six months of funding for two positions in the refuse district, a heavy equipment operator and an account clerk, whose posts are being eliminated on the prospect of the county closing its construction-and-demolition landfill next year; and the minority’s bid to restore a part-time post in the Office for the Aging so that three Niagara Falls-area senior congregate dining sites can stay open five days a week, instead of being reduced to three days a week, next year.
During the meeting, Legislature Chairman Bill Ross, C-Wheatfield, read aloud a letter to the panel from the NAACP, Niagara Falls chapter, objecting to the dining site cuts. The letter observed that while there are 22 congregate dining sites countywide, only a few are “targeted” for service reduction and two of them are attended predominantly by minorities: African Americans at St. John’s AME Church and Native Americans at Tuscarora House. If spending cuts are required, an equal cut to all 22 sites would be fairer, the letter said.
Despite all the votes cast along partisan lines Tuesday, the caucuses managed a show of cooperative spirit in the number of budget amendments that ended up being passed unanimously.
Among them was the minority’s proposal to increase sales tax income projections by $900,000 next year, versus a GOP caucus proposal to raise the projection by $500,000. Legislator Tony Nemi, I-Lockport, withdrew the latter amendment and the body voted only on the amendment sponsored by Virtuoso, Jason Zona and Owen Steed, both also D-Niagara Falls.
The majority also backed the Democrats’ amendment to reduce a part-time position in the Office of the Aging, for $10,000 savings, after the Office failed to persuade five congregate dining site owners to forego charging annual rent next year.
A “bipartisan” budget amendment, by Virtuoso and Ross, paved the way to four years of annual raises for newly re-elected Sheriff James Voutour. The sheriff’s pay, $98,245 for each of the last four years, will be raised to $100,701 next year, $103,219 in 2014, $105,799 in 2016 and $108,444 in 2016. By law the legislature must set the sheriff’s salary before his four-year term begins.
With budget adoption, the Legislature approved elimination of 35 full-time positions, five part-time positions and one seasonal post. Most but not all of the jobs were vacant; at least four nurses assigned to the county jail, and clerical staff assigned to the public health division, are being laid off this month.