CANTON — Claiming they want "home rule," St. Lawrence County lawmakers have decided to ask the state Legislature for the authority to increase the county's sales tax from 3 to 4 percent.
A resolution approved 12-3 Monday evening doesn't mean lawmakers will follow through with the sales tax hike, but it opens the door to the possibility.
Legislature Chair Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk, said she and County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire plan to travel to Albany soon to hand-deliver the request to state officials.
"We need an option," Mrs. Brothers said. "If they don't give us an option, we're going to face enormous (property tax) increases or enormous cuts. I'm a person who believes in options."
Legislator Alexander A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, a long-term supporter of increasing the county sales tax, said the Legislature should identify specific projects that would be paid for by using extra sales tax revenue, but others said he was jumping the gun.
"That whole discussion is secondary. That would come later," Mrs. Brothers said. "We're still in the baby step stage, but it's an important stage."
A 1 percent sales tax hike would generate an estimated $13 million more a year in sales tax revenues. Half of that — $6.5 million — would stay with county government, while the other 50 percent would be divided by the city of Ogdensburg and the county's 32 towns and 13 villages.
If the state Legislature permits it, the county Legislature would be allowed to adopt a new local law or amend its sales tax law.
Mrs. Brothers said there's no guarantee state lawmakers will agree to the county's request. Also, increasing the sales tax would require an additional vote by county lawmakers before it could be enacted.
Some lawmakers who voted for the resolution said they don't support a sales tax increase but agree with the philosophy of having the authority to do so.
Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, voted against the action, joined by fellow Republicans Mark H. Akins, Lisbon, and Donald A. Peck, Gouverneur.
"I think we're kidding ourselves to think we'd get home rule and not get a sales tax increase. I'll be voting against this," Mr. Acres said.
Instead of a sales tax hike, he said, the county should be lobbying state officials to reduce costly mandates, including Medicaid, which he said consumes about 55 percent of the county tax levy.
"This isn't going to solve our fiscal issues," Mr. Acres said.
The resolution will be forwarded to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, state Sens. Joseph A. Griffo and Patricia A. Ritchie, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell and Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush.
In budget-related action, the board voted to abolish five jobs in the county Highway Department. The positions became vacant over the past year through retirements and include two heavy-equipment operators that total $75,002 in salaries and three motor equipment operators, totaling $93,270 in salaries.
Legislators rejected a recommendation by their Highway Committee to replace those jobs with five laborers who would cost the county $145,305 in salaries alone.
Mr. Peck and Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb, lobbied hard for the highway jobs, but opponents said they don't want to fill positions that have a strong chance of being cut this fall when the 2012 budget is created.
"I'm very reluctant to hire someone in July and have to lay them off in October," Mrs. Brothers said.