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St. Lawrence County pushs for sales tax increase

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CANTON — The push for a sales tax increase in St. Lawrence County has started again by county legislators.

The lawmakers had lobbied for a 1 percent increase in the local share of the sales tax last year but their pleas fell on the deaf ears of state representatives wary of supporting any kind of tax increase. By the end of this year, the county’s fund balance could be under $1 million, sending legislators back to a raise in the sales tax as an answer for more revenue.

On Monday, county legislators approved a resolution asking the state for the authority to raise its share of the sales tax over its current 3 percent.

“Our circumstances are dire,” said legislative Chairwoman Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk. “It speaks for itself.”

While the county’s finances have worsened, nothing much has changed in the minds of state legislators.

When the county wanted the option of raising its sales tax last year, state Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, refused to introduce home-rule legislation that would give the county the authority. Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, was willing to bring it to the Assembly.

Mrs. Russell is still willing to do so, and in coming meetings the county will try to change the minds of Mr. Griffo, Mrs. Ritchie, and Elizabeth O’C. “Betty” Little, R-Queensbury, whose district will include a part of the county as a result of redistricting.

Ms. Little did not return a call for comment, but she has been unwilling in the past to support home-rule legislation that Essex County wanted so it could raise its sales tax.

Mr. Griffo has not had a change of heart about supporting a sales tax increase but wants to talk with county officials about their budget problems, spokesman Rayan A. Aguam said.

“It’s certainly significant,” Mr. Aguam said. “There are also other parts of the state formally in the red and trying to crawl their way out. The political reality of it is there is no appetite to raise taxes.”

Mrs. Ritchie also has not changed her position, said her spokeswoman, Sarah Compo.

“No one in St. Lawrence County has approached the senator to say they pay too little taxes,” she said.

Instead of individual legislation geared specifically to its needs, St. Lawrence County could benefit from a bill introduced in both houses of the state Legislature that would give counties the authority to control their local sales tax rate up to 4 percent without state legislative action.

The proposal would end the practice of requiring state approval and renewal for local sales tax rate changes so long as they do not exceed 4 percent.

“It’s a parity issue. New York City has the ability to control its sales tax,” said Mark F. LaVigne, spokesman for the New York State Association of Counties. “This property tax cap has increased fiscal pressure across the state. We need home rule to balance budgets without going to property taxes.”

Mr. LaVigne said NYSAC is encouraging its members to contact their representatives to support the bill.

“We see there’s promise here in this proposal,” he said.

Mrs. Brothers said the bill has potential but the county needs to proceed in several directions.

“We cannot place all of our eggs in that particular basket,” she said.

Mr. Aguam said Mr. Griffo got his first look at the legislation Friday and has directed staff to research it along with a similar initiative by another senator.

“The senator is intrigued by it,” Mr. Aguam said. “He doesn’t have a stance yet.”

Ms. Compo said Mrs. Ritchie has not seen the proposal yet so had no comment.

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