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Lewis legislators narrowly defeat sales tax hike proposal

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LOWVILLE — A Lewis County legislator’s plan to seek a sales tax increase was narrowly defeated Tuesday evening.

Legislators voted 5-5 on a resolution proposed by Legislator Philip C. Hathway, R-Harrisville, to request an increase in the county sales tax rate from 3.75 percent to 4 percent. The tax is collected at the sale of merchandise along with the state’s 4 percent tax.

“We have to be proactive about what we’re doing next year,” Mr. Hathway said. “And the property owners can only do so much.”

However, while six votes are needed for passage on the 10-member Legislature, the District 1 legislator was able to secure support only from Legislature Chairman Jack T. Bush, R-Brantingham; Vice Chairman Michael A. Tabolt, R-Croghan, and Legislators Charles R. Fanning, R-Copenhagen, and William J. Burke, R-West Lowville.

“I think the people are taxed out,” said Legislator Jerry H. King, R-West Leyden. “Maybe the thing to do is cut.”

Mr. King expressed concern that an increase in sales tax — projected to net $633,333 more in revenue than the $9.5 million budgeted for 2013 — would not be used to decrease property taxes but simply give more leeway for increased spending. He also speculated that much of the county’s sales tax revenues stem from gasoline sales, meaning a tax hike likely would increase the pain at the pump.

Mr. Hathway argued that, because of expected increases in state-mandated programs, more taxes probably will need to be collected. A sales tax hike would spread the increase among more people — including visitors to the county — than the property tax, he said.

Legislator Paul M. Stanford, D-Watson, said he didn’t feel the timing was right to increase another tax on residents.

“I just don’t think right now we can throw it at them,” he said.

Any sales tax increase would require home rule legislation to be passed by the state Legislature and signed by the governor.

At a session prior to the regular meeting, state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, told county lawmakers that getting state approval for a sales tax increase could be tenuous at best.

While home rule legislation was relatively simple to get passed a few years ago, state lawmakers are more hesitant to do so now, particularly for tax increases, Mr. Griffo said.

A bill that would have allowed any counties to raise their local sales tax rates to 4 percent, if they hadn’t already done so, “didn’t go anywhere in the Assembly,” Mr. Blankenbush added.

Mr. Griffo said he would need to gauge the viewpoint of the 2013 version of the state Legislature and determine if the governor continues to oppose such tax increases before deciding how to proceed with any sales tax increase request.

The senator, as he had previously done with St. Lawrence County lawmakers, suggested that a sales tax rate hike would be more apt to gain approval in Albany if it was first approved by county residents through a referendum.

During the regular meeting discussion, Mr. Tabolt said it was encouraging to hear that a public vote could provide weight in the matter.

“You’re right,” Mr. Hathway said. “Let the people decide.”

However, that notion fell one vote short.

Lewis County in June 2004, following passage of state enabling legislation, enacted a local sales tax rate increase from 3 percent to 3.75 percent to help offset increases in Medicaid, retirement and health insurance costs. That hike was renewed in late 2005 and every two years thereafter, with the next expiration date set for Nov. 30, 2013.

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