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Jonathan Putney, chair of the St. Lawrence County Legislature, in Waddington. Photo: Still from Putney campaign video
Jonathan Putney, chair of the St. Lawrence County Legislature, in Waddington. Photo: Still from Putney campaign video

St. Lawrence County pushes to increase sales tax

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St. Lawrence County legislators are pushing for home rule legislation, so they can raise the county's sales tax from three percent to four percent. They plan to use the additional money to reduce property taxes. But some don't think that's in the county's best interest.

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Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

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Like many local governments in New York, St. Lawrence County has been having financial troubles in recent years. The rising costs of Medicaid, health insurance, and other operations have taken their toll. The County has made cutbacks, borrowed money, and used up much of its fund balance to pay the bills.

For years, some county leaders have wanted to raise the sales tax. At three percent, it's among the lowest in the state. But until last month didn't seem likely. The state would need to give them the authority.  Governor Cuomo had pledged to hold the line on taxes, so North County leaders in the Senate wouldn't even introduce a home rule bill.

But when the Governor visited Potsdam in early February, he was asked about it.

"Matters like that I respect the locality, and I respect the legislators. So if it's passed, I'll sign it."

That's the concern...we will continue to have to borrow, and that the fund balance will not be replenished.
That response has given Senator Joe Griffo of Rome, the encouragement needed to possibly introduce a bill in Albany. So now there's a chance it could happen.

County administrator Karen St. Hilaire was out Tuesday. When I spoke with her late last year, she favored a one-percent hike in the sales tax because she said the county could regain its financial footing over time, while reducing property taxes.

"If that happened, I actually see a scenario where we could reduce our taxes by 28 percent over the next five years, so we could actually say to the taxpayers, 'we're going to cut your property taxes 28 percent," and at the same time grow our fund balance by $10 million, which I think is a reasonable amount to keep."

St. Hilaire says the county fund balance is currently at $1.5 million, and that's not enough of a safety net.

But since our conversation last November, the County's plans have changed. Jonathon Putney is chair of the legislature. He says under the most recent plan, more of the revenue from a sales tax hike would go toward property tax relief. Especially in the first year.

"The sales tax plan we have certainly does not make the county flush, by any means. These funds that will be coming in through our sales tax proposal, by and large will be used for property tax reduction."

Putney says the county's latest plan is to lower property taxes by more than 14 percent the first year, and hold to an increase of two percent after that.

The state Comptroller's Office is currently auditing the county's books, and warns that the plan may go too in holding the line on taxes.

Putney says the County is currently borrowing about $12 million a year to run its operations, and that wouldn't change under the plan.

"That's the concern, and it's a legitimate concern, that we will continue to have to borrow, and that the fund balance will not be replenished to an adequate amount over time."

In a phone call Tuesday, Senator Joe Griffo told me he'd like the county to rethink that. He says it might not make sense to return so much property tax money the first year, if it leaves the county without the money it needs to regain fiscal stability.

Griffo warns the county, that even if he and other North Country lawmakers introduce a bill in Albany to give them home rule, it won't necessarily get approved. He says there is a slight chance the Cuomo administration may give them the sales tax authority they seek in the state budget that's currently being finalized.

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