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Home-rule proposal will not allow St. Lawrence County sales tax increase

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CANTON — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal to allow counties to extend existing local sales tax rates on their own would not help St. Lawrence County’s quest for additional revenue because requests for increases would still require the state Legislature’s approval.

That is the preliminary analysis of the New York State Association of Counties of the governor’s recommendation included in his budget. The proposal would help counties that need to have their rate extended every two years but not those looking for an increase, said NYSAC Deputy Director Mark F. LaVigne in an email message.

“It would not solve the problem,” said County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire. “Our hope is the legislators would take it one step further.”

The county had supported a home-rule bill that would allow counties to increase their sales tax up to 4 percent without petitioning the state for authorization and would provide counties that have already increased their sales tax with the ability to maintain their percentages without having to petition the state again. Fifty-two counties have to be reauthorized this year.

St. Lawrence County has sought an increase in sales tax from 3 to 4 percent, bringing the total — with the state’s 4 percent — to 8 percent, but has run into resistance from state Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, because they do not support additional taxes of any kind.

Gov. Cuomo’s budget message also called for no new taxes.

Sarah V. Compo, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Ritchie, said the senator is continuing to review the governor’s proposals, but her top priorities remain working on a better economic climate and creating more jobs in St. Lawrence County and throughout upstate.

However, county legislators plan to push their state representatives on the equity question as the home-rule issue is debated.

St. Lawrence is one of five counties in the state that did not previously raise its sales tax but has been stymied now that it wants an increase as the state is looking for belt-tightening.

“We’re trying to gather the details, verify the governor’s message and asking for fair treatment,” said Board of Legislators Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington. “We hope there’s going to be equitable treatment of counties that did not raise their sales tax in the past.”

County officials have developed a five-year plan that would allow the county to cut property taxes if it were able to raise its sales tax.

The plan was sent to all of the state legislators who represent the county, but none has responded, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

A meeting with Ogdensburg leaders left county legislators with the impression that the city would go along with its current percentage take if a sales tax hike went through.

“The city was very receptive,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

Under its plan, the county has proposed a 10 percent contribution of the increase in the sales tax for towns and villages.

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.

Letters detailing the amount each municipality would receive were mailed Wednesday. Estimated additional annual revenue would range from a low of $5.42 for the part of the village of Massena in the town of Norfolk to a high of $113,830 for the rest of the village of Massena.

Village mayors and town supervisors are scheduled to meet Jan. 31 at the Potsdam Civic Center to discuss the issue without legislators present, said Brasher Supervisor M. James Dawson.

“I think we have to have a very frank discussion,” Mr. Dawson said. “It would be premature for me to say anything before the meeting. I think it’s fair to let everyone have their say.”

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