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St. Lawrence County will file intent to sue against the state

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CANTON — The St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators approved filing a notice of claim against the state Tuesday to protect its rights for revenue from the tribal-state gaming compact.

But legislators said they hope it never has to go to court.

“We’re not doing this to be argumentative or out of animosity,” Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, said.

Under the advice of Wladis Law Firm, Syracuse, legislators decided to file a notice of intent to preserve the county’s right to sue the state in the Court of Claims over a breach of the state’s obligation to pay the county money owed from the compact.

The state announced in May that it had reached an agreement with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which had not turned over the state’s 25 percent share of slot machine revenue since 2010 after alleging its exclusivity was violated.

St. Lawrence County received $1.8 million — which it shares with the towns of Massena and Brasher — of back money owed in July. Another $1.8 million acknowledged as owed by the state is in escrow pending land claims negotiations. An additional $206,000 may be added to the county’s allotment.

“The tribe has kept up its end of the bargain,” Mr. Putney said. “Payments are moving forward. At this point, negotiations on land claims are moving forward. So far, so good. If negotiations cease, so will the money.”

The county’s right to file a legal notice against the state ends Monday, prompting the legislature’s decision.

“I think it very prudent we do something like this to protect our rights,” Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, said. “Our past experience leaves a lot to be desired.”

Given the previous impasse between the tribe and the state, the county had not expected any money in 2013 and decided not to include any of the ghost revenue in the budget, but was dinged by the state comptroller for a bad accounting practice.

Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire included $1.5 million in the tentative budget for 2014, but legislators are leery of what could happen if land claim talks break down.

“I’m cautious about putting it in the budget and spending it,” Legislator Donald A. Peck, R-Gouverneur, said.

An absent $1.5 million could be the equivalent of a 3 percent increase in taxes, Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, said.

Mr. Morrill suggested assigning the money to an environmental cleanup fund but not using it for that purpose. Tribal compact funds are supposed to be used for economic development, which could apply to the environmental fund that has been used to put contaminated properties back on the tax rolls.

Mr. Morrill developed a series of cuts throughout departments totaling $1.5 million, suggesting the details are best left to administrators.

“Once these cuts are made, they’re made, but we make budget modifications all year,” he said. “If we get the $1.5 million, we can use it for economic development, but then what’s paying for those items now would flow to fund balance.”

The county’s fund balance is $6.5 million. There are no plans to increase it next year.

Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, questioned whether legislators should put money in an account it had no intent to spend it in, only to move it out later.

“It seems unethical,” he said. “Why would we try and hide that money?”

Mr. Morrill said he had no preference for how the money is handled other than it not be applied to expenses when it might not be received.

“I don’t think we should be spending it until we’re sure we’re getting it,” he said.

The $1.5 million could be carved from the budget as legislators review department budgets in the coming weeks, Legislator Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam, said.

“You’ve got a starting point here,” he said. “I think the sentiment of the board is to pull that $1.5 million out of the budget.”

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