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If they raise it, they will spend it

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Raising St. Lawrence County’s sales tax by 1 percent will fix the county’s financial problems, take pressure off cash-strapped property taxpayers and make everybody happy.

At least that’s what I’ve been hearing lately. Raising the sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent will fix everything.

I’ve never been a big fan of raising sales tax to ease financial pressure on government. Tourists who don’t own property here but spend big bucks with our retailers and lodging businesses would pay it. That much is true. But businesses and residents who are already struggling to make ends meet would also pay, and pay dearly. That is especially true when you consider that sales tax is levied on gasoline and heating fuels.

In this economic climate, a sales tax increase is the last thing county lawmakers should be considering. Raising it will do a lot of harm to those who can least afford to pay more for their day-to-day survival.

There are a lot of property taxpayers who resent the fact that government relies heavily on their taxes to pay its bills, and there are all these other people who get the roads in front of their houses plowed but don’t pay a nickel in property taxes to support that service. I have heard a lot of property owners say raising the sales tax is fairer than raising property taxes because everybody pays sales tax. The underlying implication with this view is that raising the sales tax will force property taxes down. What people with this view don’t seem to realize is that not too long after the sales tax is raised, the county will find a way to spend its windfall. Then the burden will again shift to property owners who by then will also have to pay more in sales tax.

If the county Legislature raises the sales tax, the county Legislature will find a way to spend the proceeds. And property taxes will still rise.

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, has taken some heat lately for refusing to introduce legislation enabling the county to raise its sales tax. The county can’t raise its sales tax above 3 percent on its own. It needs approval from both houses of the state Legislature. Without Mrs. Ritchie’s support, the whole notion of raising the sales tax is dead in the water. She has said that even if she were to get such legislation through the Senate and Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, were to get it passed in the Assembly, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would veto it anyway.

If all that changed and the county could raise its sales tax, lawmakers should study it before they do anything. They need to talk to businesses ranging in size from Alcoa to Tom’s Bait and Tackle Shop to see how raising the sales tax would affect them. Lots of businesses pay sales tax on the goods that stock their shelves, the materials they use to make products and overhead expenses like gasoline and heating fuels. Retailers could also face decreased sales because they have to raise prices. It would be terrible if workers lost their jobs as a result.

Lawmakers should also consider the impact on people who fall through the cracks – those who make a little too much money to be on public assistance but not enough money to live better than paycheck to paycheck. There are a lot of county residents who fit that description. If they have to pay more for necessities like gasoline, there is a good chance that the Medicaid and public assistance rolls would swell. That could eat up a lot of the money the county gained by raising the sales tax.

Perhaps the biggest question that would need to be answered is whether the county could actually give property taxpayers some relief by raising its sales tax. I suspect the financial hole the county is in is so deep that the extra $13 million to $14 million it would generate wouldn’t come close to doing that.

The only thing that will reduce property owners’ tax bills is for the county to dramatically cut spending. Raising the sales tax won’t change that fact. If you give the government money, the politicians will find a way to spend it.

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