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St. Lawrence County municipalities want more sales tax

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St. Lawrence County supervisors and mayors want to up the ante on the county’s offer of a 10 percent share of a proposed increase in sales tax.

“Clearly, the sentiment is, if possible, we’d like a larger share,” said Potsdam Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis, who was selected with Massena Supervisor Joseph D. Gray and Ogdensburg Mayor William D. Nelson as the representatives of the county’s supervisor and mayor associations to meet with the county. “We’re going with open minds. No one’s upset with the county. We’re all in this together.”

The county has no desire to haggle but will meet with municipal leaders to explain the county’s need for more revenue to ease property taxes, rebuild its fund balance and repair leaky roofs, Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, said.

“A meeting would be for educational purposes only. As far as demand for more money, there’s not support for that,” he said. “It’s not a negotiation. That’s not what we’re interested in.”

The county wants to increase its sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent, bringing the total — with the state’s 4 percent — to 8 percent. But lawmakers so far have not been able to persuade state Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, or Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, to introduce home-rule legislation that would allow the county to act. To help make its case, the county has prepared a five-year plan showing how it could reduce property taxes if it had a sales tax of 4 percent.

The five-year plan includes distributing 10 percent of the additional 1 percentage point tax to towns and villages.

Under a 2009 agreement with the city of Ogdensburg, the county keeps half of what it collects in sales tax and distributes what is left to towns and villages after the city takes its cut of 6.4 percent. Ogdensburg would not receive an increase in the percentage it receives under the county’s plan, but the city would take in more money overall because more sales tax revenue would be collected.

Mr. Nelson did not return a phone call for comment, but an earlier meeting between the city and the county seemed to have settled the city’s percentage at the status quo.

“We were pleased the mayor and the City Council supported our plan,” county Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

The city agreed to have county Attorney Michael C. Crowe draft an amendment to the 2009 agreement, she said.

Most municipalities in the county support an increase in the sales tax and are appreciative of the 10 percent offer, Mr. Gray said.

“Obviously, that is a huge benefit,” he said.

Municipalities have not agreed on how much more they would like, Mr. Gray said.

“We’re not in a firm position just yet,” he said.

A distribution to towns and villages is not obligatory. The county, when it was governed by a board of supervisors, included a municipal distribution when the state enabled the county to collect sales tax when Medicaid became a shared expense in 1965.

“We didn’t have to offer any,” Mr. Putney said. “There’s a few people who don’t understand our financial situation.”

Increases in the cost of Medicaid for counties will level out over the next three years, based on a plan by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for a cap, Mr. Yurgatis said.

“That may improve their five-year outlook,” he said.

However, Ms. St. Hilaire said those calculations were already included in the five-year plan.

Once the cap is reached, the county’s share of Medicaid costs will be around $26 million, but its current share of sales tax is around $21 million annually, she said.

“We’re still about $5 million short,” she said. “It would be difficult to make any alterations to the plan.”

An increase in the sales tax could also help rebuild the county’s fund balance — currently circling around 1 percent — back up to 3 percent, which is still below the recommendation of the state comptroller’s office, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

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