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St. Lawrence County finances look up

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County’s financial picture is looking a little rosier with a fund balance bolstered by departments that spent less than they budgeted for 2012 and the likelihood of an increase in sales tax.

At a Finance Committee meeting Monday, Treasurer Kevin M. Felt reported the county ended 2012 with a fund balance of $6.4 million, at least on paper. It had estimated its fund balance at about $4 million, but county departments spent $2.5 million less than they had available.

Despite the extra revenue, the fund balance is still less than perfect because $3 million of it is state-tribal compact funds, which so far exist just on paper. The county is expecting $1.8 million of the money soon as part of a settlement between the state and St. Regis Mohawk Tribe that will put real cash in its coffers.

The unspent allocations from county departments will also help, Mr. Felt said.

“It’s going to strengthen our position, maybe not a lot, but it won’t weaken it,” he said.

Departments that came in under budget included the Board of Elections and Highway, Probation and Social Services departments and the county administrator’s, county attorney’s and treasurer’s offices. Those that spent substantially more than they budgeted were the Community Services, Indigent Defense, Planning and Public Health departments and the Sheriff’s Office.

Community Services has improved its deficit over previous years by working on its billing. Planning’s shortfall was because of a lack of compact money.

Public Health’s bottom line is influenced by mandated programs in preschool services and with providing a Certified Home Health Agency it has shut down. Despite the demise of the CHHA, Public Health will continue to have a Long-Term Health Care Agency until the state Health Department certifies Health Services of Northern New York to provide the service.

The Sheriff’s Office overspent its budget by $978,879, mostly to pay deputies to fill in for others out on workers’ compensation and for overtime and other personnel costs.

“If all the department heads exceeded their budgets by that much, we’d be in terrible shape,” said Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg.

The prospect of an increase in the county sales tax from 3 to 4 percent — with home-rule legislation approved by the state Legislature and expected to be signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — is also expected to boost the county’s reserves.

If all goes as planned, the county could start collecting the extra tax in December, which would bring in an additional $1 million for 2013.

The county is finishing its response to the audit conducted by the state comptroller’s office, which determined the county’s fund balance had dwindled and it had cash flow problems.

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