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Massena council opposes sales tax redistribution

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MASSENA - Town officials are taking a stand against a county plan to redistribute sales tax revenues.

The Town Council unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday night opposing a proposal reducing the amount of sales tax revenue Massena receives. Legislator Gregory M. Paquin, D-Massena, said the proposal aimed at stabilizing the county’s finances would mean a $589,272 loss in sales tax revenue to the village, and a $225,957 hit to the town. In total, the county would collect $6,824,079 in sales tax revenues originally intended for towns and villages.

That didn’t fly with council, which is weeks away from finalizing a 2013 budget and is already facing a loss in casino gaming compact revenue. The town had been receiving between $182,819 to $555,613 annually in compact money from 2007 through 2010, but a dispute between the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and state has dried that funding source up.

Redistributing the sales tax money would compound the town’s fiscal problems, officials said.

“If we lose that sales tax money, I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do,” Councilman John F. Macaulay said. “It’s going to be Armageddon from a budget standpoint.”

Mr. Paquin said the sales tax redistribution was one of a few options, and he and legislators Anthony J. Arquiett (D-Helena) and Jonathan S. Putney (D-Waddington) are all opposed to it.

“It’s way too late in the process, and we’d be passing the buck down to you,” he said.

If the county cut all of its non-mandated programs, like sherriff’s road patrol, highway construction, and funding to programs like the St. Lawrence County Drug Task Force and the Office of the Aging, it still would face a budget gap of $4 million.

Mr. Paquin said that’s largely because of Medicaid, public assistance, child welfare, indigent defense and other mandated expenses, as well as state retirement costs beyond the county’s control.

“People are under the assumption that we’re frivolously wasting money,” Mr. Paquin said. “That’s just irresponsible to say something like that.”

Town board members emphasized that they will have their own budget problems this year. The council voted 4-1 Wednesday night to approve an override to the state imposed property tax cap.

Officials emphasized that the cap override was only a “stop-gap” measure to be used if necessary. Mr. Gray will release his spending proposal in a couple of weeks, and the council will likely finalize the plan by November.

Mr. Gray predicted his proposal will include a property tax increase and cuts to “outside agencies” like The Greater Massena Chamber of Commerce, North Country Life Flight, Massena Senior Citizens, Meals on Wheels and Massena Humane Society. Those organizations are funded anywhere from $2,500 to $53,500 annually.

Councilman Robert J. Cunningham opposed the override. He said the town should not consider a tax increase this year exceeding the state’s cap.

“We’ve got to learn to stay within our means,” he said. “Raising taxes is just going to continue driving businesses out of the community, and driving people out of this community.”

But the town may have no other choice if both the gaming compact and sales tax revenues dried up, his fellow board members responded. Councilman Albert N. Nicola said exceeding the cap was part of a worst-case scenario.

“The uncertainty in the county necessitates that we pass that,” Mr. Nicola said.

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