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If we should have an ice storm ... if we should have any number of events that we cannot control, we will be in serious trouble.

County budget strategies falling short

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Like other municipalities around the state, St. Lawrence County is figuring out its budget for the coming year. So far its strategies to cope with rising expenses, falling state aid and a new cap on property taxes aren't working out.

Its leaders are cutting positions and programs. But they say they also need more revenue. That's where county leaders seem to be hitting a wall. Julie Grant reports.

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Julie Grant
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St. Lawrence County has taken the preliminary steps required to override the state’s 2-percent cap on property tax hikes.  But they’re holding off on an override.  The proposed budget actually stays within the tax cap limit. 

Sallie Brothers is a democrat on the board of legislators.  She says the budget cuts positions and services, and it leaves the with county too little money in the fund balance.

Brothers:  If we should have an ice storm, if we should have a major flood, if we should have any number of events that we cannot control, we will be in serious trouble.

The County starts budget discussions next week.  Brothers isn’t sure if legislators will wind up over-riding the property tax cap, but she’s glad they’ve got the option. 

When she first started on the board, she says St. Lawrence considered following other counties, and asking the state to give them the authority to raise the sales tax.

Brothers:  I opposed it.  I opposed the sales tax increase, because I thought we did not need to do that at that time.  You’re talking about 8 or 9 years ago.

Now she regrets that stand because St. Lawrence County needs the revenue.

Brothers:  No good deed goes unpunished.

Some St. Lawrence County legislators thought that if they presented a budget this year that stayed within the new 2 –percent property tax cap, then the state would consider letting them raise the sales tax. 

But State senator Joe Griffo says that’s not going to happen.  He says Governor Andrew Cuomo has made it clear.

Griffo:  The governor has indicated that he would not support or sign legislation that increases taxes.  So that is a fact.  Unless there is a change in the mindset of the executive branch, any potential proposal would not be looked at favorably.

Instead of raising taxes, Griffo wants to reduce some of the county’s expenses.  He says the state is looking at the mandated costs it imposes on counties, such as Medicaid.  While the state has capped Medicaid increases, the price tag still goes up by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.  Griffo thinks the state should pay those costs.

Griffo:  We have proposed, a number of us, that the state should look at a takeover over a gradual period, understanding that there are fiscal challenges that continue to plague the state.  But I think it’s a conversation we need to have.

But at a recent press conference, Governor Cuomo didn’t seem open to a state takeover of Medicaid, either.

Cuomo: I could sit here and say the federal government should pick up my costs.  And the federal government would say that’s a nice idea, but we don’t have money either.  It’s an overall function of the economy.  And everybody had to recalibrate, and everybody has to make it work. The Medicaid, the state capped their increasing costs to 3-percent, so the state took a major step forward in alleviating their costs.  But do we have money to subsidize them?  No.

Senator Griffo says New York should stay open to helping counties with Medicaid costs as a long term strategy to keep down local taxes.

Meanwhile, some St. Lawrence County legislators are still holding out hope that the state will let them raise the sales tax.

Republican Dan Parker that’s the best short term solution to raise revenues. 

Parker:  If we don’t keep pushing the way we’re pushing it’s not going to happen.  If we keep pushing, at least we’ve got a possibility of getting it.  Maybe we’ve got to try it two times, maybe we’ve got to try it three times.  But I don’t think giving up is the way to go. 

Parker is also still hopeful that St. Lawrence County can find way to provide necessary services without raising the property tax by more than 2-percent. 

But in this budget cycle, some St. Lawrence County legislators are glad they have a tax cap override in their back pockets – in case they can’t make the numbers work.

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