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Towns, villages disagree with St. Lawrence County sales tax plan

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County legislators heading to Albany today to talk sales tax with state senators will not have the unanimous blessing of town and village leaders.

Neither legislators nor representatives of the county supervisors and mayors associations left a meeting Tuesday happy with each other’s position on how much the municipalities would receive if the county is able to increase its sales tax.

“We have a responsibility to St. Lawrence County. They have a responsibility to take care of the finances of their municipalities,” said Finance Committee Chairman Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction. “In this case, they conflict.”

Legislators want to increase the county sales tax from 3 to 4 percent, bringing the total — with the state’s 4 percent — to 8 percent. To convince state senators, the county produced a five-year plan showing how it could drop property taxes if it received the increase.

State Sens. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, also wanted the county to be in sync with its towns and villages over any distribution they would receive.

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.

The distribution to the towns and villages for the first 3 percent of local sales tax does not change under the county’s plan. However, the county has proposed the towns and villages would receive only 10 percent of any additional local sales tax collected.

That is insufficient, said Potsdam Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis, who met with county legislators along with Massena Supervisor Joseph D. Gray and Ogdensburg Mayor William D. Nelson.

A 10 percent allotment would hurt Potsdam, Mr. Yurgartis said. According to an estimate of what village residents would pay in increased sales tax based on a median annual income of $68,000 versus a property tax increase, the property tax is less onerous, he said.

“I cannot in good conscience advance a sales tax increase if it resulted in a tax increase for my constituents,” he said. “I hope they’re going to reconsider their position.”

The county’s plan shifts expenses to the towns and villages, Mr. Yurgartis said.

“I don’t think that’s good partnership,” he said. “We’re all under severe financial pressure.”

Some towns say a sales tax increase is the best solution, including Waddington, which voted Tuesday to support home rule legislation that would allow the county to make its own decision.

Large property owners, such as farmers, who do not pay sales tax on purchases related to their business would benefit from an increase in sales tax rather than property tax, but that will not help towns such as Massena, which raised taxes nearly 30 percent for village residents in its last budget, Mr. Gray said.

“We need a plan that works for everybody,” he said.

Towns and villages do not pay a share of Medicaid or bear the burden of required programs, said Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg.

“I think the need is greater on the part of the county,” he said. “We have all the mandates from the state.”

The meeting included discussion of a number of compromises, including a change in the distribution formula that would see the county using sales tax to pay all of its Medicaid costs and then apportioning what was left to towns and villages or ramping up the distribution to the municipalities over time, but no consensus was reached.

“We’re still open to negotiate,” Mr. Gray said. “I certainly empathize with the county. It won’t happen without a united front.”

Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, said he hoped state senators would look at the benefit of a sales tax increase to the county as a whole.

“It would be a tragedy if a few vocal individuals prevented property tax relief in St. Lawrence County,” he said.

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