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St. Lawrence County legislators begin budget discussions

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CANTON — A tax increase of up to 18.5 percent, drastic cuts in nonmandated programs and retention of some of the sales tax money traditionally distributed to municipalities are among the options St. Lawrence County legislators may consider as they deliberate on next year’s budget.

“We’re not done coming up with options. We’ve been trying to be creative,” Legislature Chairwoman Sallie A. Brothers said. “Everything is on the table but nothing has been decided. These are the things we have in front of us. What kind of government do we want and what services do we want to pay for?”

This year’s tax levy was $46.4 million. Preliminary figures show that the levy could rise to $55 million next year, an increase of $8.7 million. The budget includes increases of $1.5 million each in expenses for pensions and health insurance, various requests from county departments, and a loss of $1.5 million the county is projecting it will not receive in tribal compact money. Roofs on two buildings need repair and computers are dated.

County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said she is not advocating for any particular option or combination of choices legislators could use to balance the budget.

“I’m not suggesting any of these,” she said. “If you want to look at the costs, here they are. I certainly do not want to stop feeding the elderly or providing mental health clinics.”

Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, advised caution when reviewing the numbers because the budget has not been publicly unveiled yet and legislators have not begun their line-by-line review.

“No one has looked at the department budgets,” he said. “We have not looked at anything specific yet. I’m not going to speculate until I have better numbers.”

Ms. St. Hilaire’s budget team has prepared figures that provide legislators with short-term and longer-term savings if nonmandated programs are cut. First-year figures factor in unemployment benefits and vacation accrual payouts.

Eliminating the Planning Office would cut $175,975 the first year but have a long-term annual savings of $296,203.

Cutting the sheriff’s criminal division but keeping officers on to transport prisoners would cut $944,244 in the first year and have a long-term effect of reducing departments costs $1.6 million annually. In the Highway Department, slashing town snow contracts 25 percent could save the county $478,843 if municipalities went along with it.

Other cuts are possible in the Board of Elections, Office for the Aging, Public Health and Youth Department. Cuts in Community Services could come next year because those programs would have to be phased out.

If all of the reductions were implemented, savings would amount to $4.5 million, about 50 percent of what is needed to offset the projected tax increase.

“If you cut everything, you’re still only halfway there and you’ve diminished the quality of life in the county,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

If lawmakers approve an 18.5 percent tax levy increase, that would mean a house valued at $100,000 would pay $160 more, she said.

The third option would reduce the amount of sales tax that is distributed to towns and villages.

Under a 2009 agreement with the city of Ogdensburg, which has the option of imposing its own tax, the county keeps half of its 3 percent sales tax. Ogdensburg receives 6.44 percent and the balance is divided among the towns and villages, based 50 percent on population and 50 percent on assessed value.

If the county were to keep half a percent more of the town and village share, that would amount to $7 million. The remaining shortfall of $1.6 million would amount to an approximately 3 percent tax levy increase, which would fall under the county’s tax cap limit, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

“That wouldn’t be very palatable with the towns and villages, but you don’t cut your programs,” she said. “The sales tax by law belongs to the county. It does not have to share. We’re one of the few that share what we do. That’s the legislators’ decision to make. If you can’t pay your bills, you need to look at that option.”

Making that choice would require reopening the county’s agreement with Ogdensburg, which might want an increase for allowing the redistribution. The county is not proposing to cut the city’s share.

At the Gouverneur Town Council on Tuesday, where Legislator Donald A. Peck, R-Gouverneur, brought up some of the options for discussion, the board did some quick figuring. A loss of half a percentage point in sales tax revenue would cost the town $120,000 and could raise its tax levy 20 percent, town bookkeeper Gary C. Higgins said.

Raising taxes to make up for the loss would be at the discretion of local governments, but most of the county’s towns are in far better fiscal shape than the county, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

According to figures provided by the state comptroller’s office, some towns showed fund balances well above the 10 percent of budget recommended by the state.

Brasher reported a fund balance last year of $1.44 million, a figure that is 68.2 percent of the amount it appropriated. The town of Potsdam had a fund balance of $4.5 million, 135 percent of its budget.

Other towns that reported fund balances last year in excess of 25 percent of their budgets were Colton, DeKalb, DePeyster, Fowler, Hammond, Hopkinton, Lisbon, Louisville, Macomb, Oswegatchie, Parishville, Pitcairn and Waddington.

A handful of towns had fund balances less than 10 percent of appropriations, including Canton, Clare, Clifton and Edwards.

“There’d have to be some discussion about those few,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, said lawmakers will face tough choices.

“People have to talk about the direction they want to go,” he said.

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