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St. Lawrence County mayors and supervisors debate sales tax

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POTSDAM — St. Lawrence County mayors and supervisors breathed a sigh of relief Thursday when county legislators told them a redistribution of sales tax was doubtful.

“It’s too late in the year to even talk about that,” Legislator Donald A. Peck, R-Gouverneur, said.

To help reduce a projected 20 percent tax levy increase, legislators first broached keeping one-third of the sales tax traditionally distributed to towns and villages, an idea universally panned. The latest proposal, which has not been discussed yet by legislators, is for the county to keep 10 percent of the sales tax that would normally go to towns and villages.

That would mean tax increases on the local level more than already anticipated, Brasher Supervisor M. James Dawson said at a joint meeting of the county Supervisors Association and Mayors Association in the Potsdam Civic Center.

There is also little sense redistribution could win the vote of eight legislators, Stephen M. Putman, D-Canton, said.

Rather than focus on changing the split of what money is already available, the group of more than 30 discussed convincing state representatives to introduce home rule legislation enabling the county to raise the amount of sales tax it collects by one cent.

“I don’t see how we can avoid supporting the 1 (percentage point) increase,” Norwood Mayor James H. McFaddin said. “We face people losing their homes. Rents are just about at peak, along with property taxes.”

With no sales tax increase and no redistribution, the county is projecting double digit property tax increases for the next five years. A sales tax increase from 3 percent to 4 percent could mean property tax cuts over the same period along with regrowth of the fund balance.

The idea of a referendum to gauge public sentiment on a sales tax increase versus property tax hikes was favored. However, there is no provision in state law allowing advisory referendums, Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, said.

An informal poll might be just as effective, Massena Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said, suggesting a piece of paper and a ballot box at the polls in November.

While there was no consensus on an informal referendum, mayors and supervisors agreed to ask fire departments, libraries, residents who use recreational programs and others to write letters to state representatives and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo about the need for a sales tax increase.

No one offered legislators opinions on what they should cut, but there was support to keep the sheriff’s criminal division.

Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said the public cannot depend on the state police if his investigators and patrol officers are eliminated. While more troopers may come, their purpose is focused on the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation and for border enforcement.

“There’s a lot of scary things going on,” Sheriff Wells said. “This isn’t the county we grew up in.”

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