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Mayors oppose county plan for sales tax redistribution

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MASSENA - Following a lengthy debate Thursday night, members of the St. Lawrence Conference of Mayors passed a resolution to let St. Lawrence County legislators know that, while they realized the county was having financial difficulties, they would not support a redistribution of the sales tax because of the bite it would take out of their budgets.

At the same time, they suggested contacting state senators urging them to support allowing the county to raise its sales tax 1 percent, as well as asking state officials for mandate relief to assist with budgets.

Mayors who attended the meeting at the Massena Country Club said they sympathized with the county’s plight. Faced with a tax increase of up to 18.5 percent, county Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire is asking legislators to think about keeping half a percent of the sales tax it distributes to towns and villages under a formula based 50 percent on population and 50 percent on assessed value. Retaining the money would raise about $7 million for the county and take a lot of the pressure off budget deliberations but it would also take a big bite out of town and village budgets.

“It isn’t us against them,” Ogdensburg Mayor William D. Nelson said, noting the sales tax redistribution formula had been implemented “fairly and in a manner agreed upon.”

He questioned whether any village could balance a budget without the sales tax.

“Can you take your sales out of your budget and live with it?” he asked.

Mr. Nelson suggested the resolution passed Thursday night was the “best approach” to the situation.

“They’re passing the buck literally to us,” he said. “We all need this money in our budget. I have no problem supporting a resolution saying we oppose it.”

“We all know it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Heuvelton Mayor Barbara A. Lashua said.

Massena Mayor James F. Hidy said, in his case, they would take a hit of more than half a million dollars.

“The one thing in our favor is the deciding vote, if it happens, is sitting right here - the city of Ogdensburg,” he said.

“The city of Ogdensburg does have the first call because it is a city. I think it’s a terrible mistake to make any changes. It’s a fair distribution, and I think we should resist any change,” Potsdam Village Trustee Ruth A. Garner said.

“Any change has to be approved by the city of Ogdensburg,” Mr. Nelson said. “I don’t support the change, and I don’t believe there’s support from the city of Ogdensburg council.”

Potsdam Mayor Stephen W. Yurgartis suggested that what the county needed was a 1 percent increase in the sales tax and a pledge from the mayors to work with them to help resolve their financial difficulties.

“I think the way out is for all of us to urge Sen. (Patricia) Ritchie to support a 1 percent increase in the sales tax,” he said.

Not everyone favored the idea though. Massena Village Trustee Francis J. Carvel said he would rather absorb a property tax increase because of the impact a sales tax increase would have on shoppers.

“I’d rather pay the county tax and hope it gets cut off than get a 1 percent sales tax I’ll have for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s going to be a couple hundred dollars more for me whether I like it or not. At least with a property tax I know exactly what it’s going to be for the year.”

But Ms. Lashua disagreed, noting they would be spreading the sales tax to anyone who purchases items in the county instead of just property owners who would be asked to absorb a property tax increase.

Waddington Mayor Janet M. Otto-Cassada suggested that an increase in the sales tax would impact all taxpayers.

“They’re going to raise heat, they’re going to raise gasoline, they’re going to raise food. People on assistance are going to get more assistance and the only way they can get it is through your tax dollars,” she said.

While they had originally been poised to pass a resolution supporting a 1 percent increase in the sales tax, the motion was withdrawn in favor of a resolution that told county legislators they could not support the sales tax redistribution.

“If we pass a resolution to support a sales tax increase, it won’t take effect until 2013,” Mr. Nelson said.

Mr. Carvel also suggested getting rid of unfunded mandates.

“Just raising and getting another dollar out of everybody is not the answer to the problem,” he said.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell said they had made progress on the mandate front in some areas, but still had more work to do. That process, she said, had taken two years, and she suggested that they needed to take a more immediate approach to resolve the county’s financial issues.

“We are making some progress. Senator (Betty) Little and I were able to very carefully navigate mandate relief through. It took two years, and there’s a five-year sunset on it,” she said.

Any mandate relief would need to come down the road, Ms. Russell said.

“We’re not going to be enacting legislation between now and when the county passes its budget,” she said.

Mr. Nelson said he wanted mandate relief to be taken seriously by officials in Albany.

“All we got last year was window dressing. I want real mandate relief. I think we need to push serious mandate relief,” he said.

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