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Dawson says he’ll fight any sales tax loss, Louisville reps opposed too

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BRASHER FALLS - St. Lawrence County Legislature Anthony J. Arquiett says one of the options county officials are looking at to make up their budget deficit is to reduce the amount of sales tax revenue they provide to the towns.

But Brasher Town Supervisor M. James Dawson says, don’t even think about it.

During a sometimes testy exchange at Wednesday’s Brasher Town Board meeting, Mr. Dawson said he would fight any attempts by county officials to retain some of the sales tax revenues currenty shared with towns, villages and the city of Ogdensburgs.

“You’re not serious,” he told Mr. Arquiett, D-Helena, as the county legislator outlined three possible courses of action they were considering to generate revenue.

The move, Mr. Dawson said, would translate to “transferring what you might have to raise in property taxes back on the shoulders of the towns. You say to the towns, ‘Here, we’re going to shove this responsibility on you.’ We have to make that up in our budget. In our case we would have to make up about $115,000.”

Mr. Arquiett said Brasher’s sales tax revenue would drop from $369,099 to a proposed $231,761 if they proceeded with the proposal.

The town’s revenues in its 2012 budget included $320,000 from sales tax revenues and $350,000 from property tax collections.

“I felt I needed to report this,” Mr. Arquiett said, noting the “redistributing of sales tax revenue as we see it today” was one of three options on the table and no decision had been made.

He suggested that if the county kept an additional .5 percent, that would equate to $7 million in the county’s budget. If they maintained .75 percent more than the current split, that would give the county $10.5 million.

“Several counties don’t share their sales tax with their towns,” Mr. Arquiett said.

Mr. Dawson recalled that around 1965 when the sales tax was instituted in St. Lawrence County, town supervisors sat on a Board of Supervisors and decided that the fairest way to split the sales tax revenue was evenly, one-half to the county and one-half to the towns.

“Now you say you’re going to take one-third away? By divesting yourself of that responsibility you’re shifting the numbers around,” he said.

“It’s one of our options,” Mr. Arquiett said.

“I’m against it. I will work my utmost to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Mr. Dawson replied.

The Brasher town supervisor acknowledged, however, the final decision would rest with county lawmakers. “If eight people decide, we can’t stop it,” he said, referring to the majority of the 15 county legislators.

While Louisville’s representative Jonathan Putney, D-Waddington wasn’t in attendance at the town’s Wednesday night meeting, Town Supervisor Larry R. Legault informed his board members that Mr. Putney had phoned him and alerted him of the possibility the sales tax formula could change.

“Can they just do this?” asked board member Patrick D. Carroll, to which Mr. Legault replied, “I don’t know.”

Mr. Carroll said the possibility of this looming over their heads as the board is trying to develop its spending plan makes crafting their budget significantly more difficult.

“We’ll have to have our budgets in place before November, but they’re talking about doing this,” he said. “That could have a major impact. That’s almost one-third of our revenue.”

Mr. Legault said he doesn’t think the county legislature could actually go through with such a move.

“They’ll get a lot of flack from the 32 towns,” he said.

That being said, Mr. Legault said this isn’t something they can fight quietly.

“We need to stay on top of them and make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.

Mr. Arquiett said the sales tax distribution was one of three options county legislators were looking at to help balance their budget.

They could also eliminate services if they’re not mandated, such as the nutrition program or cancer services.

Under that option, he said, the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department would be “greatly sacrificed” and the county’s youth department would “go away completely.”

They could also increase property taxes, but under the current scenario that would mean an increase of 18 to 19 percent, Mr. Arquiett said, noting he would it unacceptable because “our property owners are maxed out.”

“I’m representing the people of the three townships and my ears are open,” he said.

What could help them out - but what they’ve been unable to successfully do so far - is raise the sales tax 1 percent. Mr. Arquiett said St. Lawrence County is one of five counties in the state that is not at 8 percent, and they’ve been unable to convince lawmakers in Albany that the move is needed to generate revenue.

He said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, has carried the request to the Assembly floor, but no action has been taken until the Senate moves on it - and they haven’t done that because of a pledge for no tax increase.

“They’re trying to stick to that,” Mr. Arquiett said.

Mr. Dawson suggested that county officials had opportunities to make up some of their budget deficit by making cuts to some of their services.

“You had an opportunity to divest home health care to private people,” he said.

Mr. Arquiett said he and other legislators chose not to do that because they weren’t comfortable with the projection the service would cost the county approximately $1.2 million.

“I don’t believe that number to be factual,” he said, noting he chose not to make the move “because I disagree with that number, as do many of my colleagues.”

He suggested that they had asked the department to “tighten their belt” and didn’t believe that all of the $1.2 million should have been charged to home health care.

That drew Mr. Dawson’s ire as he questioned how county officials could prepare a budget without knowing how much their services would cost.

“Someone must know. What is the appropriation in the budget?” he asked. “No wonder you’re screwed up up there, How do you write a budget if you don’t know what the cost is?”

Benny Fairchild contributed to this report

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