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Are they willing to accept the pain involved in eliminating some of those services?

St. Lawrence County to consider overriding property tax cap

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The St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators is holding a public hearing Monday night about overriding the state's new two-percent property tax cap.

The county announced this week that it needs to issue bonds in order to meet its financial obligations this year. And leaders are considering whether to eliminate all but essential services - that means programs for the elderly, for youth, and the entire planning department would all be gone.

Some leaders say raising more money by over-riding the tax cap is the only responsible thing to do. But others say limiting property taxes is the real imperative. Julie Grant reports.

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Julie Grant
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Sallie Brothers is chair of the St. Lawrence County board of legislators.  She says the county’s financial situation doesn’t look good. 

A new state law limited municipalities from raising the property tax by more than 2 percent a year.   But Brother’s says that’s not enough.

She says the county could cut all non-mandated services, such as alcohol and substance abuse programs, the planning department, youth programs, and nutrition services for the elderly.  

"We need to get some direction as to where people feel we need to go.   Do we need to maintain some of the services, is that the wish of the people?  Or are they will to accept the pain involved in eliminating some of those services."

The law does give local governments the option to over-ride the 2 percent tax cap –  but first they have to hold a public hearing.  So that’s what St. Lawrence County is doing.

After that, Brothers says , legislators can vote to give themselves the authority to override the cap. 

"Property taxes in New York state are out of control.  I don’t really know anyone who believes otherwise."

Garry Douglas is president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce.  He is also chair of Governor Cuomo’s recently announced North Country regional economic development council. 

He says the property tax cap is an important step – because high taxes are bad for the north country economy:

"And actually are one of the greatest detriments to economic development and job creation, and one of the greatest causes of the continuing loss of population in this state, as both working families find it unable to stay in homes, and even as our seniors, they retire, find it impossible to stay here and so exit to other states.  And so it’s an absolutely indispensable imperative to get these taxes under control."

But many local officials say the state is limiting their ability to raise money, and at the same time adding to their expenses.

For example, the state comptroller’s office just announced that next year local governments will have to pay an average 2 and a half percent more for the Employee Retirement System.

St. Lawrence County chair Sallie Brothers says that’s a big jump in costs:

"And over the last 3 years, our investment in the state pension fund has gone from zero, okay zero costs, to 6.5 million to potentially 8 million next year.  That’s 6.5 million that we’ve got to pay out, that we’re not getting anything in for."

There is an exemption in the property tax cap specifically to pay pension costs.   

Peter Baynes is executive director of the New York Conference of Mayors.  He says most cities will need to raise property taxes somewhere between 3-and-5-percent to cover the pension increases. 

He says it’s only responsible for local governments to follow lead of St. Lawrence County, and go through process that allows them to override the  2-percent limit.

"What I’m recommending to my people is, override the cap, the sooner the better.  You might as well pass the local law, override the cap, and then give the local government the flexibility.  That doesn’t mean you have to actually levy taxes in excess of the cap, but it gives you that option, if all other options fail."

Even with this movement afoot, Garry Douglas says the tax cap is still a victory – because it tilts things in favor of taxpayers.  He says the next step is for the state to reduce mandates on the local governments.

The public meeting to discuss giving St. Lawrence County the authority to override  tax cap begins at 5pm at the County Courthouse.


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