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St. Lawrence County legislators like five-year plan

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County legislators unanimously approved a five-year plan Monday to reduce property taxes next year and then keep future increases within 2 percent if the county gets a hike in sales tax.

“I do think we can do it,” said Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, chairman of the Finance Committee and chief architect of the five-year plan. “It’s very challenging.”

The county Board of Legislators wants to increase its sales tax from 3 to 4 percent, bringing the total — with the state’s 4 percent — to 8 percent.

The 2 percent tax levy increase limit in the out years of the plan was a concession to state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, who had opposed home-rule legislation that would allow the county to raise its sales tax because original projections for how the money would be used continued to burden property owners.

“The message was to come back with our very best plan,” Mr. Morrill said.

Legislators are expected to meet with Mrs. Ritchie soon and with state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Utica, in March.

The previous plan estimated property taxes would rise 2.9 percent, 3.8 percent, 3.2 percent and 3 percent in the last four years. Both versions call for a property tax reduction in the first year of 14.3 percent, about the amount legislators raised the levy for this year’s budget.

Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, had been a hold-out, but he voted in favor of the plan and to amend an agreement with the city of Ogdensburg that spells out the distribution of sales tax if an increase is approved. The amount of the extra money allotted to towns and villages would stay at the 10 percent the county has offered.

Mr. Acres said he thought a tax levy increase that did not rise above 2 percent would give businesses the confidence to make investments and provide property owners with some breathing room.

The county would find the money to keep taxes down by cutting back on the amount it had planned to rebuild the fund balance, possibly dipping into money it wants to spend on capital projects, or by program cuts of $500,000 in 2014, $150,000 in 2015, $300,000 in 2016, $700,000 in 2017 and $725,000 in 2018.

The county already anticipates savings of $385,000 in 2014 from the elimination of its Certified Home Health Agency, which is closing this year. The other cuts have not been identified.

“It’s sort of like the sequester,” Mr. Morrill said.

Keeping the fund balance low will mean the county will continue to borrow annually for operating expenses because cash flow will be tight, Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

However, some growth in the fund balance could happen naturally as pension increases abate and the county sees lower health insurance costs because it has reduced its workforce by around 100 positions.

If a sales tax increase comes soon enough for the county to see it for one quarter of this year, that money could go to the fund balance, Mr. Morrill said.

Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, said the plan provides directions if not a precise road map.

“They’re not going to be exact but they tell you where they’re headed,” he said. “The trend is more important than the amounts.”

The additional sales tax would raise $842,000 to $1.2 million annually from Canadian shoppers, tourists and college students, who do not pay property taxes, but legislators acknowledged the bulk of the revenue would still come from county residents.

However, paying sales tax rather than property tax would give some residents options because it would be less money out in lump sums.

“Maybe they would buy their child that extra pair of shoes,” Legislator Jim A. Bunstone, D-Potsdam, said. “It allows them to spend it as they see fit.”

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