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St. Lawrence County fund balance dip could lead to hefty tax hike

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County’s fund balance could dip to under $1 million by the end of the year, which could mean more borrowing, a hefty tax increase and concessions from employees in the future.

“We’ve had opportunities to do things, but we don’t have the stomach to do it,” Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, said at a meeting of the Board of Legislators Finance Committee Monday. “We can work our way out of it if we’re careful. Pressure makes a big difference and we’re at that point.”

In a report on 2011 year-end figures, Treasurer Kevin M. Felt reported the fund balance at the end of last year at $7.8 million. Nearly $3 million of that amount comes from tribal compact funds, which were budgeted but have not been received because of a dispute over gaming exclusivity between the state and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. Legislators had already committed $4 million of the remaining amount to help reduce this year’s tax levy.

“The longer we continue to lose $4 million before we do something collectively as a group, the more drastically we’ll have to act,” Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, said.

County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said an official of Empire State Development told her a discussion would soon take place with the governor’s office on the compact money, but Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, also suggested a face-to-face meeting with state representatives to explain the importance of the revenue to the county.

In 2007, the county’s fund balance stood at more than $22 million. At the end of 2010, it was $12.3 million.

Last year was rough for the county. It was hit by $3.8 million in unexpected costs in Public Health, which included back billing by St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services for preschool expenses and unanticipated costs in its Certified Home Health Agency.

One bright spot was a legal victory against the state Department of Health that brought the county Department of Social Services approximately $1.5 million in contested reimbursements.

The county cannot expect that windfall again, Mr. Akins said.

“We’re also not going to get pre-k back-billing that hits us for $2 million,” Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, said.

To deal with last year’s cash flow crunch, legislators authorized borrowing of up to $8,5 million.

While the county will be able to pay back the money, it will likely have to borrow again later in the year.

“We had to borrow last summer,” Mr. Felt said. “Our fund balance is lower than it was.”

Mr. MacKinnon said legislators will have to be strong when it comes time to settle labor contracts with its unions.

“The key to our success for the next few years will be how we settle these contracts,” he said.

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