In just about a week — Dec. 20 to be exact — county legislators will finalize the 2006 budget.

As it stands now, County Manager Greg Lewis’ proposed spending plan includes a 5.52 percent property tax.

That’s simply unacceptable.

County lawmakers need to do whatever they can to ensure a zero percent tax increase. County residents deserve it. County businesses do, too.

We’ve gone over it again and again. Niagara County simply cannot stay on this course. We agree with Lewis, who said, Niagara County cannot afford to continue to fund county government as it currently exists. Making deep cuts must occur, whether it’s this year or next year or the year after that, county lawmakers are going to be forced to start making some difficult decisions and legislators must look at payroll and Mount View. We’ve said it before, county taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to subsidize employment, be it at Mount View or in an extensive friends and family pyramid among county employees.

We also expect county lawmakers to leave the fund balance alone or taxpayers will continue to chase those dollars every year until we reach an Erie County meltdown. Last year, the Legislature used $2.8 million of the fund balance to off-set a tax increase.

Lewis and his staff recommend using the one-time revenues in 2007 and leaving the fund balance as it is — and, of course, raising everyone’s taxes more than 5 percent. Without the use of tobacco settlement money, that increase would be nearly 11 percent.

That’s not good enough, but we’re not confident the Legislature is up for making meaningful, long-term changes.

In the proposed 2006 budget, Lewis is calling for 24 layoffs and the elimination of 24 vacant positions, which would save $1.3 million. To get to a zero percent tax increase, 56 additional positions would need to be cut.

A difficult decision to make, but as we’re seeing everyday in the private sector, those types of decisions aren’t optional. We believe county taxpayers are demanding it.