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St. Lawrence County legislators campaign for sales tax increase

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County’s struggles for an increase in its sales tax could wrap up soon with passage of a state budget or continue for a while on a separate path.

The budget could be a viable way for passage if it includes extenders for counties that require periodic sales tax renewals along with parity for those not at the same level as others, said state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome.

“I support it in philosophy so long as there are conditions,” he said.

Those could include a return for state Legislature approval if an individual county’s formula for sharing the revenue changed and that counties develop a “best practices” plan to live within the state’s 2 percent tax levy increase cap, Mr. Griffo said.

“The Senate is definitely pushing this. The executive appears OK with this,” he said. “The Assembly has been reluctant.”

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, accused the Senate of overkill and of not offering a straightforward answer to St. Lawrence County’s sales tax request.

“It’s a much bigger bill than we need,” she said. “We shouldn’t be changing these processes without a whole lot of thought and consideration.”

Mrs. Russell has sponsored home-rule legislation for the county in the Assembly and believes she could find partners in the Senate this year to have the legislation passed.

“The Senate’s plan to hide sales tax increases in the budget and remove the state’s oversight role is dangerous policy and not in the interests of taxpayers due to the reduced transparency and accountability,” she said in a statement.

If sales tax parity is not part of the budget, then it is time to consider another path, such as home rule, Mr. Griffo said.

St. Lawrence County wants to increase its local sales tax from 3 to 4 percent, bringing the total — with the state’s 4 percent — to 8 percent. A five-year plan the county developed demonstrates how it would lower property taxes by 14.3 percent in the first year and hold the annual increase in the other years to 2 percent.

Included in the plan was a 10 percent distribution of the additional sales tax to towns and villages, some of which were unhappy because their current allotment is greater. The present distribution is for the county to keep half of what it collects and give the rest to towns and villages after the city of Ogdensburg takes a 6.4 percent cut.

The county’s plan to reduce property taxes is not binding, but the Board of Legislators intends to make it work, said Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction.

“If I’m there, I’m going to do whatever I can to follow this plan,” he said. “I think the very best thing to do is return it to the taxpayers. I’m quite satisfied with the plan because we did a lot of due diligence.”

State senators urged a united front with the towns and villages, which is coalescing, although it may not be unanimous.

Some county legislators have tried to convince towns and villages to sign on to the five-year plan.

Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, developed a spreadsheet that shows the difference between a 1 percent increase under the current distribution formula and what each municipality would receive under the 10 percent split. Mr. Lightfoot’s figures also include the savings to taxpayers, the total return to towns and property taxpayers and the difference between them.

Overall, only the villages and property taxpayers of Canton, Rensselaer Falls, Richville, Hermon, Norwood and Potsdam would see an overall reduction with the 10 percent split compared to the current distribution formula. However, property owners in all communities benefit from the 10 percent distribution, Mr. Lightfoot said.

“Granted, the towns receive less, but you’re putting money in the taxpayer’s pocket,” he said. “They’re going to save a heck of a lot more money than if the towns kept it all.”

Many towns have healthy fund balances and have not developed the same kind of plan the county has to use the additional revenue to cut property taxes, he said.

After a conversation with Mr. Griffo, village of Potsdam Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis — one of the representatives who tried to convince county legislators to increase the 10 percent municipal contribution — changed course.

“It’s been a good fight, but I think it is now time to recognize that we are very unlikely to get a change in the county’s sales tax distribution proposal. I believe we must accept that we will not be getting what we wanted, and to be good partners with the county and help them get what they need,” Mr. Yurgartis wrote in an email message he sent to town and village leaders. “The county has made a strong case that their financial problems are so dire that it would be impossible to change the sales tax sharing scheme beyond what they have proposed. They have also offered a five-year plan that takes the additional sales tax revenue and returns it as property tax relief for county citizens.”

Mr. Griffo said he made a strong suggestion to county leaders to find consensus with the towns and villages, but it was not a requirement.

“I told the mayor, ‘It’s not going to stop it because there’s a number of towns that want it and a number that don’t,’” he said.

Some towns and villages have formally lined up behind the county’s five-year plan, including DeKalb, Edwards, Hermon, Heuvelton, town of Gouverneur, Louisville, Macomb, Pierrepont, Russell, Stockholm and the town of Waddington.

Russell Supervisor Robert C. Best Jr. said the county’s plan to use sales tax to reduce property taxes while giving a 10 percent nod to towns and villages was an improvement over last year’s proposal to redirect sales tax from municipalities to the county.

“We were worried the county would have to take a third of our sales tax,” he said. “I thought this was a win-win. The county listened to us.”

Supervisors and mayors will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Potsdam Civic Center.

Brasher Supervisor M. James Dawson Jr., Supervisors Association president in the county, did not have a running tally of where town and village boards stood on the 10 percent distribution plan.

“It’s all over the place,” he said. “I just tried to make this a fairness issue.”

Johnson Newspapers writer Sean Ewart contributed to this report.

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