Tuesday’s public hearing on Niagara County’s tentative 2009 budget was a lightly attended affair.

Just four speakers told county officials what they thought about next year’s proposed spending plan.

The taxpayers’ comments reflected a common theme: The county can and should do a better job of cutting costs during these trying economic times.

“I don’t know where you guys are living,” said Town of Wilson taxpayer Kathy Ellis. “Obviously, you don’t live in the same world I do.”

The proposed budget includes no increase in the current property tax levy of $67.8 million and projects a 21-cent decrease in the full value tax rate to $7.57 from $7.78 per $1,000 of assessed value next year. While county tax rates will vary depending on state equalization rates for individual towns and cities, under the proposal, the average county home valued at $100,000 would see a decrease in taxes of $21 next year.

While officials have touted the spending plan as sound, considering the financial pressures faced by the county this year, Ellis said the budget numbers were hardly cause for celebration. Ellis noted that the 2009 budget calls for a $2 million increase in overall spending over this year’s budget, up to $304 million, and includes a fund balance, based on 2007 audited numbers, in excess of $21 million. Ellis said the county should begin enduring some of the painful cuts people in the private sector are currently having to deal with. She suggested a good place to start would be salaries and benefits for lawmakers as well as full- and part-time county employees.

“You’ve got two weeks to go back in there and make the cuts,” Ellis said.

Newfane resident Edwina Luksch agreed. She also said she was not satisfied with the terms of the spending plan and said county officials have little reason to tout their most recent budget effort. Luksch criticized county officials for adding more positions in 2009, including a chief for a new department of homeland security and a proposed insurance program assistant. Luksch said Niagara County — labeled by the Tax Foundation as the No. 1 spot in America in terms of property taxes calculated as a percentage of home value — should be trimming patronage jobs, consolidating services and reducing the tax burden for its citizens.

“We are just being taxed to death,” she said.

Majority Leader Richard Updegrove, R-Lockport, believes the county has done an admirable job of controlling spending and reducing the size of its workforce in recent years. He added that the county has managed to present a spending plan that calls for tax reductions in many communities at a time when it is under tremendous fiscal pressure from various outside sources. He said members of his caucus will continue to review the budget in the coming days.

“Obviously, we’ll continue to look at other avenues to reduce this further, if possible,” he said.

Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said members of his caucus have identified several areas in the budget where changes can be made.

“We want to have a tax decrease,” he said. “We are going to work hard to accomplish that.”

In other matters, the Legislature:

• Approved a resolution from Legislator Clyde Burmaster, R-Ransomville, calling on Gov. David Paterson and other state and federal officials to investigate possible price gauging on the part of gasoline suppliers in Western New York.

• Authorized the use of $10,000 in county casino revenue for renovations at Lockport’s Historic Palace Theatre. The Legislature also referred to the Economic Development Committee a request for the use of $25,000 in county casino cash to support Community Missions in Niagara Falls.

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