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St. Lawrence County legislators begin slicing budget

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CANTON — Approximately $750,000, including three positions, was cut Monday from the St. Lawrence County Highway Department by legislators who promised more to come to reduce a projected 20 percent tax levy increase.

“After tonight, it’s clear we will make difficult cuts,” said Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said.

The reductions came from a list prepared by Finance Committee Chairman Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, who identified $7.1 million in cuts he wanted debated after Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire declined to have department heads recommend reductions. The cuts listed by Mr. Morrill would bring the tax levy increase close to the tax cap.

A budget team, including legislators, came up with the tentative budget with the double-digit tax increase. County law passes the responsibility for changes to legislators, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

“It’s up to you to make those choices,” she said.

Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, questioned Ms. St. Hilaire on how she could present a budget with such a massive tax increase.

She responded: “You spent the fund balance down to nothing.”

“I can’t manufacture the money,” she said. “There’s nothing left. That’s why you get the budget you get.”

The votes on cutting the Highway Department fell mostly on party lines, with Republicans arguing that maintaining and plowing roads is a mainstay of county service.

The tentative budget presented already had cut $1 million from Highway, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

The votes were so close, often 8-7, that when Legislative Chairwoman Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk, momentarily left the room, a measure to cut culverts by $50,000 was defeated. Mr. Acres then quickly called the question on the next proposal, to reduce bridge supplies by $100,000, but Mr. Morrill recessed pending the return of Mrs. Brothers. Mr. Morrill was challenged by Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, but Mr. Morrill darted out of the room for a trip to the bathroom, halting the proceedings.

Rather than make sweeping cuts, Legislator Stephen M. Putman, D-Canton, proposed a $500,000 reduction for Highway Superintendent Toby W. Bogart to come up with, but that was defeated.

Mr. Acres said legislators were micromanaging and making poor choices, but Legislator Jim A. Bunstone, D-Potsdam, said lawmakers had no choice but to take on a detailed role.

“Unfortunately, this isn’t micromanaging. We would have loved to have department heads take another look and come back,” he said. “We’re going to have to decide.”

Going line by line, legislators reduced money intended for salt and sand, drug testing, roadside mowing, guardrails, supplies, surface treating, equipment purchases, parts for repairs and fuel.

The across-the-board cuts were ill-conceived, said Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon.

“This type of strategy is irresponsible,” he said. “This is not the way to plan out business strategies.”

Mr. Morrill’s list had included eliminating nine positions for an approximate savings of $450,000, but legislators ended up agreeing to cut three. Earlier this year, the board allowed Mr. Bogart to hire three laborers even though some warned that layoffs were possible.

“Eliminating nine positions would drastically cut into services,” Mr. Bogart said. “At this point in time, I’m struggling to make crews.”

Legislators also cut one position from the Real Property Department and told Mr. Bogart to come back next week with a plan of handling the Solid Waste Department if the recycling coordinator position were eliminated.

Republicans said they are not opposed to layoffs.

Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, asked for lists of potential cuts prepared by Democrats.

“I think we should have them too so we don’t have to make snap decisions,” he said. “I will vote to eliminate positions because it’s the only way to do it.”

Mr. MacKinnon said he was not necessarily against layoffs but wished legislators had a different review system.

“You can’t hold off and look at the big picture,” Mr. MacKinnon said. “If we’re going to get the thing down, things are going to have to go. Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty, people.”

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