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Bigger tax and fee collections make it the Empire state of taxation

Getting a driver's license or car tags. Picking up a hunting or fishing license. Registering your boat. Buying a bottle of water.

For millions of New Yorkers, those and other tasks will be more expensive starting later this year.

The recently approved state budget includes a couple of dozen increases in fees, surcharges, taxes and assessments — even a new, 5-cent deposit on bottled water.

Three Democrats from the Big Apple crafted the budget largely out of public view — Gov. David A. Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm A. Smith.

The officials say the revenue from the new fees and taxes — estimated at $8.3 billion — is needed to close the massive budget gap created by the ongoing economic crisis.

But many taxpayers and local officials say the state hasn't done enough to cut costs before imposing higher fees and surcharges on New Yorkers.

"Motorists in Erie County are already hit too hard with high gas prices and more tolls than any other upstate community, and we need a break," said Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul. "And hitting motorists with increased fees, I believe, is wrong."

The higher fees were imposed from Albany, but workers in municipal offices across the state will bear the brunt of public ire once the new fees kick in, Niagara County Clerk Wayne F. Jagow said.

"Wherever you're turning you're going to be hit with an additional fee," Jagow said.

Taxpayers are filling the airwaves, the Web and the letters' pages of newspapers with their frustration.

Are the higher fees a reasonable attempt to deal with a severe budget deficit, or an example of Albany's indifference to taxpayers?

— Stephen T. Watson and Sandra Tan

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Buffalo School Board's travel and munchie budget

Buffalo school board members work long hours for little pay.

Some say it's entirely reasonable to provide them with dinner and snacks for their meetings. A number of board members come to meetings directly from work, without stopping for dinner, and the meetings can last until 9 or 10 p.m.

And, some say, traveling to conferences helps make the district stronger, because board members are exposed to new and better ways to teach children.

So $100,000 over a year and a half is money well spent, they say.

"I think with a billion-dollar budget, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the overall expenditures we have to deal with," Superintendent James A. Williams said.

Others, though, say it's not the dollar amount that's at issue — it's the principle.

"I don't think it's the best use of our money," board member Louis Petrucci said. "It just sticks in my craw that someone's feeding me food when we're discussing budget deficits and layoffs. You lead by example."

Should the board scale back on its spending, as other school boards have? Should it stay on course?

Or should it spend even more, as Williams suggests, so that more board members can travel outside the area?

— Mary Pasciak

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Buffalo's traffic lights make for slow going

Many weary drivers are saying the same things.

Put Buffalo's traffic signals in sync.

Get rid of lights that have outlasted their usefulness.

Outfit other signals with special gizmos that keep lights green until vehicles on quieter streets approach intersections.

City Hall officials have heeded their advice. They're stepping up an effort that began last year to better coordinate traffic signals on some of Buffalo's busiest streets.

Mayor Byron W. Brown recently met with public works honchos and engineers to review the effort. Brown said he can relate to the frustrations drivers feel when they're forced to make incessant stops. It not only eats up time -- it wastes fuel.

We performed an offbeat lunch hour experiment Wednesday. We drove up Delaware Avenue from West Mohawk to Forest, then made our way back downtown via Elmwood Avenue. We hit eight lights on Delaware and spent a third of our travel time -- just over three and a half minutes -- sitting at signals.

We also hit eight lights on Elmwood -- nine if you count the one on South Elmwood behind City Hall. We spent just under four minutes of our 12-minute excursion waiting at lights. Check out our video and you'll understand why some drivers would argue that "life in the fast lane" doesn't exist on some Buffalo thoroughfares.

Officials say motorists should see big improvements on numerous city streets by next spring -- even sooner on some stretches.

How would you describe your driving experiences in the city?

-- Brian Meyer

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Additional gun control measures? Not under Obama.

WASHINGTON — There's no recession in the gun industry.

The most heavily armed stable democracy in the world, the United States of America, is arming even more in tough times. In Erie County, pistol permit applications are coming in at three times the 2008 rate, and the same sort of thing is happening all across the country.

Meanwhile, plugged-in political sources said the prospects for additional gun control measures — such as the return of the assault weapons ban — are about as good as the Sabres' recent chances of making the playoffs.

President Barack Obama may be a longtime proponent of gun control, but he's got at least a little something to do with the current practical reality of guns in America — where more and more people are buying guns in fear that Obama will try to ban them.

But on Capitol Hill, 65 pro-gun House Democrats have even more to do with the political reality of the issue, vowing to stop additional gun measures, thereby leaving gun control activists without the votes to pass anything meaningful.

Meanwhile, every few days another madman guns down a few more people.

What do you make of it all?

— Jerry Zremski

Smile! You're on red light camera

   After years of debate and some political strong-arming, cameras appear to be on their way to 50 intersections in Buffalo to catch red light runners.

   Is it all about public safety, or about raising revenues through the issuing of thousands of traffic tickets?

   Turns out it's both, though there is some debate about how much the cameras will really reduce the number of intersection accidents, such as T-boning (front-to-side impact) crashes.

   The critics are loud with their complaints: Big Brother taking over, letting machines do the work of cops, the ability of the city to tinker with the system to generate more tickets, and a technology that might not take into account extenuating circumstances or be too aggressive in ticketing legal, right-on-red moves by drivers.

   But, according to AAA of Western and Central New York, 70 percent of its members favor red light cameras. "We always held the view that visible law enforcement is the most effective means of deferring traffic violations. However, we recognize the potential of red light cameras to perform important enforcement functions,'' said AAA's Wally Smith.

   But as Buffalo moves to red light cameras, assuming Gov. David Paterson signs the legislation that passed last week authorizing the five-year pilot study, there are  a host of questions.

   Will the city see a drop-off in especially dangerous T-boning accidents, but a rise in rear-end collisions from drivers stopping suddenly when lights turn yellow? Will the initial rush of money from fines wear off after drivers become more aware of the intersections with the cameras, and then what will the city's reaction be? And will the cameras, as some privacy proponents fear, be used in ways that go beyond catching red-light runners?

   --- Tom Precious

State budget takes its toll on state parks

   No swimming at Woodlawn Beach and Lake Erie state parks.

   Shorter seasons at campgrounds, including Letchworth State Park.

   Shorter hours and closures for attractions in Niagara Falls State Park.

   These are just some of the effects state budget cuts will have on parks facilities across Western New York, authorities have announced.

   Parks officials said they attempted to focus the operations changes outside the main tourist season, at off-peak hours and where alternative facilities are available nearby.

   What do you think of the changes residents will see at state parks this year?

   -- Aaron Besecker

Dare to compare

   It's a bureaucratic sounding organization with a high-fallutin' mission:

   The Empire Center For New York State Policy, a project of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, says it is "dedicated to promoting freedom, opportunity and enterprise in the Empire State. Through research papers, policy briefings, commentaries and conferences, the Empire Center seeks to educate and inform New York State policymakers, news media and the general public."

   What that doesn't say is that it provides an essential public service: Public information that is supposed to be available to you and me but sometimes takes ages to get, is available to you and me on the center's web site.

   You can look up stuff like how your taxes compare to your brother-in-law's in a different town, or what your son's teacher's contract looks like.

   --- Barbara O'Brien

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East Side lots: For housing or farming?

They are two clashing visions for vacant lots on Buffalo's East Side.

City officials said they've worked for years to string together 27 parcels on Wilson Street in hopes of seeing new homes built in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood. It's all part of a long-range plan, Mayor Byron W. Brown insisted Tuesday. The city has been working with Habitat For Humanity, which has built about 100 homes in Buffalo since 2002.

Mark and Janice Stevens have a different vision. The Fillmore Avenue residents want to buy the two-acre site and set up an urban farm. They've been trying convince city officials to sell them the land since last fall.

Habitat's local president said he only learned about the proposal for a farm when he a read a Sunday story in The Buffalo News. At the urging of Common Council President David A. Franczyk, Ronald G. Talboys said his group is willing to look at other sites for new homes.

But Brown and his chief development adviser, Brian Reilly, said they're convinced new housing is the best use for one of the city's largest tracts of residential land. The mayor said more than a dozen homes could ultimately be built on the parcels. These would be homes that generate property taxes and lure more residents into Buffalo's Fillmore District, Brown argued.

Which vision for these vacant lots do you think makes the most sense?

  --  Brian Meyer

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Lead feet at Buffalo stoplights will soon mean lighter wallets

   Sometime later this year, it could be costly trying to beat the yellow light before it turns red.

   Lawmakers this week are poised to approve letting several communities, including Buffalo, begin installing cameras at intersections to catch red light runners. It comes 15 years after New York City began such a program and a couple years after a Rochester lawmaker single-handedly stopped Buffalo and other cities from getting the cameras.

   For the city, it's about increasing safety at intersections; hundreds of people die each year in the United States at the hands of red light runners. So-called T-boning — front-to-side accidents — are especially lethal in red light running incidents.

   But it's also about money. The city will be able to charge $50 for every infraction. A year ago, the Brown administration estimated 1,800 drivers a day could be caught in the first year of the program. But that was if 100 cameras were used; the new measures in Albany permit cameras in up to 50 intersections at any one time.

   But is this, as critics say, Big Brother expanding again? Are cameras, which are increasingly popping up as surveillance tools, replacing cops on the beat? And how sympathetic will judges be to claims by drivers who insist the camera was wrong?

   And one thing is certain: expect some interesting conversations around the dinner table over who will take responsibility for driving the car when it went through a red light. Consider: the owner of the car — not necessarily the driver — is responsible for paying the ticket.

   Was that the father driving or the kid when it went through the light? The bill is silent on how families might resolve that one.

   — Tom Precious

The job of managing difficult students

   It hasn't been an easy year in the Allegany-Limestone Central School District.

   Some parents believe the district is not keeping their children safe -- that special needs
students should be kept from disrupting other students.

   The parent of one special needs student believes other parents are unfairly trying to get
his child kicked out of school.

   Where do the rights of one student intersect with the rights of others?

   -- Barbara O'Brien

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