LOCKPORT—Niagara County lawmakers approved a $336-million spending plan a week ago that marginally bumps taxes —despite a $2.3 million hike in county spending on an Albany-mandated welfare program
The approved 2015 budget sets a full value tax rate of $7.66 per $1,000 of assessed value, up 6 cents, or .79 percent, over last year's rate—but remains lower than the $7.72 rate set in the 2013 spending plan. Despite the minimal uptick in rates, the budget maintains deep cuts in county tax rates achieved over the course of the past decade, with taxes still lower than the $8.71 per $1,000 rate set in 2005.
The budget passed the 15-member Niagara County Legislature by an 11-4 vote with 11 Republicans voting for the budget and four Democrats voting against it.
Despite passing the spending plan, county leaders remain concerned over a surge in costs to fund the state-mandated "Safety Net" public assistance program brought about by unilateral changes in state funding levels beginning in the 2011 New York state budget.
While the state formerly funded 71 percent of the cost of that program, beginning in 2011, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's executive budget changed the state funding level to 50 percent—meaning county taxpayers have to make up the difference in the increasingly expensive program.
Safety Net is unique to nanny state New York, where welfare recipients can remain on welfare- now mainly at the county where the welfare taker resides-- after the 5-year federal limit for welfare expires. In New York, generous-with-your-money legislators allow a welfare recipient to remain so for life.
Most other states go with the five year federal limit.
County lawmakers also approved, by an 11-4 vote, again along party lines, a plan to provide 75 percent of the county's share of Seneca Niagara Casino slot machine revenues - estimated to be about $1 million - to the county's 12 towns and the cities of North Tonawanda and Lockport for tax relief, while devoting the remaining 25 percent to economic development efforts.
This is nearly the opposite of Niagara Falls' plan under Mayor Paul Dyster, who uses all the casino money on whatever he deems is economic development as he picks the winners and losers for who will get casino cash while using none for tax relief. (Legally, as a host city Dyster can't use the casino cash for anything but community development but he has found ways to seemingly circumvent the law when he sees fit. There are no such restrictions on the county's casino cash)
Dyster, in his 2015 budget, preferred to break the two percent state tax cap rather than use casino money for tax relief. Studies have shown that tax relief is the quickest way to achieve economic development. Low taxes attract investors.
The city of Niagara Falls, one of the highest taxed cities in the nation - in proportion to the value of its real estate - receives its share of casino funds - about $20 million annually - directly from New York state, while the portion for residents of the 14 other municipalities is appropriated to the county under Section 99-h of New York State Finance Law, which governs appropriations of funds generated under the Tribal-State Class III Gaming Compact.
The 2015 budget also restores step increases to unionized county employees.
"This budget accomplished several significant goals, including direct tax relief to residents of the municipalities outside Niagara Falls," said Legislature Majority Leader Rick Updegrove, R-Lockport, following the budget's passage. "It should be noted, however, that Gov. Cuomo could lower the costs borne by Niagara County taxpayers by $2.3 million by simply restoring the previous Safety Net funding levels and not passing costs on to county taxpayers for a program that Albany mandates."