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St. Lawrence County adopts sales tax plan to reduce property taxes

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CANTON — The St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators adopted a five-year plan at its reorganizational meeting Wednesday that could reduce property taxes and partially rebuild the fund balance if it were able to raise its sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent.

The plan was attached to a resolution that would support state legislation to allow counties to increase or maintain their sales tax up to 4 percent and to a second resolution that would grant St. Lawrence County the authority to increase its own sales tax. Part of the purpose of the plan is to convince state legislators that an increase in sales tax for the county would mean property tax relief.

“With this plan, in the first year, we could reduce the tax levy almost dollar for dollar,” Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, said. “It’s a good compromise. The concept is good.”

With most assumptions at status quo, if the county’s sales tax were to stay at 3 percent, the increase in the tax levy would likely rise 7 percent in 2014, and between 3.5 percent and 3.9 percent for the next four years. The county could probably not start to rebuild the fund balance until 2016.

With a sales tax hike — and if the city of Ogdensburg agreed to its current share at 6.4 percent and the towns and villages received 10 percent of the increase — the tax levy could drop 14.3 percent in 2014. The 2013 county tax levy increase was 14.4 percent.

Under a 2009 agreement with the city, the county keeps half of what it collects in sales tax and distributes what is left to towns and villages after the city takes its cut. The county is proposing to change the percentage distributed to towns and villages, but only of the proposed sales tax increase.

At a 3 percent sales tax, the county property tax levy over five years would equal $305,653,503. The increase to 4 percent would mean a five-year property tax levy of $242,713,503.

“That’s a difference of $63 million in property taxes collected over five years,” said Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb, chairman of the committee that drafted the plan.

At the same time, the fund balance could grow by $3 million more over the same period. It would be five to seven years before the tax levy was at the 2013 level again.

“The committee did a great job of hitting a center point,” Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, said. “I think it’s a huge step forward.”

Only Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, said the plan did not go far enough and voted against it.

“This is a short-term plan,” he said. “It doesn’t address the real problem.”

Although the plan had bipartisan support, the choice of a chairman and vice chairman did not. Democrats voted unanimously for Legislator Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, to succeed Legislator Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk — who received a standing ovation from all legislators — and for Vice Chairman Donald A. Peck, R-Gouverneur, whose switch from a Republican to a Democrat is not yet effective.

Republicans, with the exception of Mr. Peck, voted for Mr. MacKinnon as chairman and for Legislator Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam, as vice chairman.

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