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St. Lawrence County will borrow for highway equipment

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County is planning to borrow up to $1 million, in addition to spending about $500,000 already set aside in the 2014 budget, to purchase highway equipment, expenditures neglected in recent years because of financial hardship.

“We don’t even have an equipment budget to buy a chain saw,” said Legislator Donald A. Peck, D-Gouverneur.

The Highway Department has been a go-to place for shaving costs because it is low-hanging fruit, with little of the money spent on equipment reimbursed by state and federal dollars.

“We knew we were decimating that department, but the reality was we needed to balance the budget,” County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said. “It is the place to go because it’s dollar-for-dollar local money.”

Legislators at a committee meeting Monday agreed to spend $450,000 of $600,000 from a capital reserve account for equipment, including plow trucks and loaders.

In addition, legislators agreed to borrow $1 million.

“Without making these purchases, the $300,000 that’s in maintenance for 2014, you can’t meet,” interim Highway Superintendent William E. Dashnaw told legislators. “With these purchases, you’ve got a shot.”

County trucks are constantly in the shop, so replacing some with vehicles that have warranties would go a long way, Mr. Dashnaw said.

The Highway Department’s maintenance budget was cut from $400,000 to $300,000 for 2014 because of expected savings from a vendor management system, said Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, who opposed the borrowing.

“I think borrowing money does limit what we do next year in the budget,” Mr. Morrill said. “What we do if we approve this is commit to something we can’t change and cut.”

Mr. Morrill was joined in voting against the loan by Legislators Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, and Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon.

Mr. Akins agreed with Mr. Morrill that there was danger to locking in the costs of repaying a debt when the county had pledged to stay under the state’s 2 percent tax cap for the next few years.

But Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, said borrowing the money is a way of doing the right thing.

“I look at it as an opportunity to be forced to do what needs to be done,” he said.

The debt will be taken out as a bond anticipation note and paid back over three years. The interest on the debt will amount to about $26,000.

Before the county’s last few years of financial problems, the Highway Department typically replaced a few pieces of older equipment annually, said Mr. Peck, chairman of the county’s Highway Committee.

“That’s how things should be done on a normal routine, but we’ve got ourselves out of a normal routine,” he said. “We’ve got to purchase some equipment.”

Refusing to make the purchases would doom the next highway superintendent to failure, Mr. Dashnaw said.

Five candidates from a pool of 15 applicants are being interviewed today for the post.

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