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St. Lawrence County supervisors support sales tax referendum

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CANTON — A public referendum that would give voters a choice between a 1 percent increase in the sales tax or an 18.5 percent increase in St. Lawrence County property taxes won the support of the county Supervisors Association.

“We’ve got to make sure somebody listens about this sales tax,” Potsdam Supervisor Marie C. Regan said. “Let’s work together on pressure to get the sales tax.”

Approximately 30 supervisors and other municipal officials met Thursday at the Best Western/University Inn to discuss the possibility the county will keep one-third of the sales tax it traditionally has distributed to towns and villages as a way of bridging an estimated $8 million to $10 million gap in its budget. County legislators also could raise property taxes by a maximum of 18.5 percent, lay off employees who provide nonmandated services or come up with a combination of options.

County lawmakers had wanted a 1 percent increase in the sales tax, but were rebuffed by state Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Utica, and Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, who said that they do not support a tax increase and that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would not sign enabling legislation even if it passed the Senate and the Assembly, where it has the backing of Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa.

“I think we all know getting that 1 percent sales tax would solve the problem,” Mrs. Regan said. “A referendum might force their hand in Albany. It would take Patty Ritchie off the hook.”

The referendum would not be binding, but if the measure was approved, it would show that residents prefer a sales tax increase to hikes in the property taxes they pay to the county, towns or villages.

“The word from the governor’s office is they’re sitting back and waiting to see what happens,” said Legislative Chairwoman Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk. “If we got the 1 percent, we would be able to handle our finances and build our fund balance back.”

It is too late to put a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot, which means the county would have to hold a special election at an estimated cost of $150,000.

The 1 percent increase would raise $13 million to $14 million annually but could not come in time to solve the county’s 2013 budget crisis. However, it eventually would allow the county, which likely would keep the total increase for a time before any distribution of the new revenue to towns and villages, to make equipment purchases it has put off, repair buildings and rebuild its fund balance, which could fall below $2 million by year’s end.

Massena Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said a 1 percent sales tax increase would hurt residents more than a 20 percent property tax increase because it would apply to almost every purchase.

“Personally, I’m opposed, but I think it’s what you need to do,” he said. “If this goes through, it needs to be explained to people.”

In the county’s case, an increase in the sales tax would allow it to raise more revenue from Canadians who cross the border to shop and students who do not pay property taxes, Mrs. Brothers said.

The supervisors association also agreed to send copies of the resolution seeking a referendum to town and village boards and the city of Ogdensburg for their support.

Supervisors also opposed the possible redistribution of the sales tax they now receive and were against a possible 25 percent reduction in contracts for towns that plow county roads.

Supervisors who are in the midst of preparing their own budgets will need answers on what to expect for revenue soon and whether to have public hearings that would allow them to override the state’s 2 percent tax cap if necessary.

“At what point am I going to know what numbers to plug in for sales tax?” Mrs. Regan asked.

The likelihood that county legislators will vote this fall to keep one-third of town and village sales tax is not great, said Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction.

“I’ll predict there is definitely not eight votes to change the sales tax distribution,” he said.

However, Mrs. Brothers said she could make no promises, especially since legislators have not even begun to look at budget details.

“Until it is discussed, I can’t guarantee anything and I won’t,” she said.

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