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Residents packed the St. Lawrence County Courthouse  (Photo: Julie Grant)
Residents packed the St. Lawrence County Courthouse (Photo: Julie Grant)

St. Lawrence County hearing to override property tax cap

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More than two-hundred and fifty people packed the St. Lawrence County Courthouse last night for a public hearing about overriding the state property tax cap.

A brand new state law limits local governments from raising the property tax by more than 2 percent in a year. But some St. Lawrence County leaders say that's not enough to keep the county solvent and still offer many services residents count on.

They're thinking about overriding the tax cap, but in order to do that, they first need to hear from residents. Julie Grant was at last night's packed meeting in Canton:

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Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

St. Lawrence County administrator Karen St. Hilaire opened the hearing by explaining the hole the county is in.  Two hundred people filled the courthouse seats, while others stood along the walls, and peaked in from the hallway.  St. Hilaire stood at the podium and listed the County’s expenses:

"There are 9 major county mandates, these are things the state says that  we  must provide.  They are Medicaid, public assistance, child welfare and protective services, youth detention, pre-K, special eduction, early intervention, indigent defense, probation, and pensions for our employees."

St. Hilaire says these mandates add up to 40-million dollars – eating up nearly all of the current property tax dollars.  She says St. Lawrence County needs nearly 15 million dollars more to balance its budget. 

St. Hilaire says the county needs to raise revenues and make some cuts.  Her proposed budget has legislators overriding the state-imposed property tax cap.

She suggests 10 and a half million dollars in cuts and cost containment, as well as a 9 and a half percent hike in the property tax.

"That sounds terrible, 9 and a half percent increase.  I don’t want an increase in my taxes either.  What that equates to is, if you have a 100-thousand dollar home, that’s 79 dollars a year, or about a little less than a carton of cigarettes."

St. Hilaire says if the County stays within the state’s mandated 2-percent property tax cap, it would need to cut the entire planning department, the youth department and the substance abuse clinics.  It would eliminate funding to all outside agencies.  And it would eliminate the Sheriff’s criminal division – with the possibility of keeping the Road Patrol.

Nearly everyone there had something to say.  Sheriff Kevin Wells was the first to speak.  He says the Road Patrol might not be tagged as a-quote-mandated service, but it’s essential:

"We’re responsible, we as a Sheriff’s office we’re responsible for monitoring and taking care of sex offenders that live in the rural areas of this county  that are not in an incorporated village with a police department.  That’s over 360 sex offenders that we as a law enforcement agency have to monitor and keep track of in this county for the people of this county."

Michael Morgan represents the Deputy Sheriff’s Association  Road Patrol.  He took that message even further…

"Are you going to be able to look someone in the eye who was robbed, raped, molested or beaten, and tell them sorry, we had to make cuts."

Many people also spoke in favor of sparing the planning department.  The department costs the County 450-thousand dollars a year. John Ten Bush works there.  He says most of their grant applications are successful – to the tune of 1.6 million dollars a year.  They work with communities around the county to apply for funds:

"By the time we’ve written a housing rehab application for your town, we have assessed every house in town.  We have been invited in to, and inspected, 30 to 40 of these houses, so we know there are homes with standing water in the basement, homes where the whole family sleeps in the dining room when it’s cold because they can’t heat the bedrooms, homes where water cascades down interior walls when it rains, and homes where they buy their drinking water from the supermarket because what comes out of their kitchen sink makes them sick."

The mayor of Norwood and the Waddington Town Supervisor both pleaded with the board of legislators to raise the 2 –percent tax.  They said the planning department has brought them hundreds of thousands of dollars.  North Country Savings Bank, the housing council, and even a young couple spoke passionately about how the planning department has helped renovate homes and get funding to help people afford them.

Supporters of mental health clinics for adults and children, and substance abuse counseling, spoke about how their services prevent bigger problems. 

The board listened, and for the two hours of the meeting all the speakers Messena public works employee Mark Patterson:

Patterson:  We need to keep the services we have.  I implore you again, raise this tax…thank you.

But then…

"My name is Richard Akins, I’m a farmer from Hopkinton New York, and I guess I’m the first one tonight to say, I wish you wouldn’t override the property tax cap (applause.)  Not that I want to see services eliminated, but I don’t think this should fall back on to the taxpayers."

Akins says the county needs to be more efficient.  As the meeting moved into its third hour, more people got up to agree.  A taxpayer watchdog group explained why property tax valuations aren’t done fairly.  One woman said the price of everything is going up, and she can’t afford a higher property tax bill. 

The decision now is up the board of legislators…

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