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Trustees consider support for possible sales-tax hike

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MASSENA — The village’s Board of Trustees is divided on whether to support a possible effort giving the St. Lawrence County Legislature authority to make a decision on whether to increase its share of the sales tax from 3 to 4 percent.

Mayor James F. Hidy introduced a motion at last week’s board meeting supporting home rule legislation to allow the county Legislature to consider a possible sales tax increase in the wake of a multi-million dollar shortfall facing county government.

After some debate and discussion, the board voted to table the motion and re-examine it after it had a chance to discuss the measure with the three county legislators that represent Massena.

Support for home rule does not necessarily mean the county will be able to raise its sales tax from 3 to 4 percent (on top of the state’s 4 percent sales tax).

State Senators Patricia A. Ritchie and Joseph A. Griffo have both been cool to the sales tax hike plan and their support is critical to moving the measure through the state Senate. They have also suggested Gov. Andrew Cuomo would be unlikely to sign legislation calling for a tax increase.

The home rule legislation is an effort to show the county’s support for the increase, County Legislator Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam, said at a recent Stockholm Town Board meeting.

The resolution supporting home rule legislation has been on the agenda at town and village board meetings around the county in recent weeks.

“If the towns all support home rule, and the county wants to support the sales tax increase, it’s pretty clear to the state that that’s what they want,” Mr. Parker said.

Mr. Hidy said he would like the county to increase the sales tax by 1 percentage point because he finds it preferable to the alternatives, which include property tax hikes or a redistribution of county sales tax revenue to the individual municipalities.

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. A later proposal called for the county to keep 10 percent of the sales tax revenues that would normally go to towns and villages. The village of Massena receives approximately $1 million in sales tax revenues each year.

With no sales tax increase and no sales tax 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, county officials have suggested.

Mr. Hidy said he would prefer a sales tax hike over a property tax hike because property taxes are mandatory, but an individual has some control over how much they pay in sales tax.

“Once you increase the property tax, everybody has to pay it. You have no choice — it’s there,” Mr. Hidy said. “As far as the sales tax goes, maybe you have to rethink what you purchase, maybe just curb your spending a little bit.”

But Trustee Francis J. Carvel noted that raising the sales tax, as opposed to property tax, may not necessarily benefit members of the community.

“Most people here are spending all their income,” Mr. Carvel said. “Everything you buy is taxable. The groceries themselves and your mortgage are just about the only things that are not taxable.”

Trustee Timothy J. Ahlfeld said he needed additional information before he could vote on the proposal, noting that a property tax hike might be detrimental to local business.

“If you’re going to raise property taxes, that’s going to have a huge effect on our major employer here — a few of our major employers,” he said.

“I understand what they are trying to do but what happens to that extra revenue? Is it just a means to address the issue they have right now?” he wondered. “I need to figure out the whole puzzle. If we don’t do this, what would an increase in property tax do to our industries? I asked that question a month ago and nothing but crickets.”

He said he needed answers to his questions before he could cast a vote. “I need to see all the facts before I can go ahead and vote on something like this,” Mr. Ahlfeld stressed.

Mr. Carvel also pointed out that a sales tax increase is only a temporary solution to budget deficiencies.

“The counties that have raised the sales tax over a period of time — they’re now at 8 or 9 percent - they’re in trouble,” Mr. Carvel said. “The fact is five years from now, or 10 years, you will face the same thing again, and you can’t raise (the sales tax) anymore.”

Mr. Parker agreed with that position, saying he’s concerned the county will quickly spend its added revenue and will then have fewer options for generating more.

“We’re going to be in the same boat two or three years from now,” he said.

A third option to balance the county’s budget is to eliminate discretionary spending, which means cutting services that are not mandated by law. The county has already explored ways to improve efficiency, such as combining job functions and eliminating unnecessary travel with county vehicles, Mr. Parker said.

The county has also cut a variety of services, including a new mothers program, a substance addiction program and a mental health program, he said. The only way to cut spending even further is to eliminate county jobs, which does not fully alleviate costs because the county then has to pay for the laid-off workers’ retirement or unemployment benefits.

He said discussion about eliminating the sheriff’s department road patrol drew strong opposition from county residents.

Mr. Parker suggests concerned citizens mail a handwritten, hard-copy letter to the governor or their local legislator.

Mr. Hidy said he would invite legislators Jonathan Putney, Gregory Paquin and Anthony Arquiett to the next village board meeting.

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