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Cuomo supports home rule for sales tax increases

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POTSDAM — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gave his blessing to a raise in the St. Lawrence County sales tax, but only if it is both requested by the county and supported by the state Legislature.

“I respect the locality and the local legislators. If it is passed, I’ll sign it,” he said.

Mr. Cuomo presented his executive budget in Potsdam on Tuesday morning, when he signaled his support for home rule legislation. Though the budget proposal allows counties to extend local sales tax rates on their own, it did not give counties the right to increase their tax rate without legislative approval.

Mr. Cuomo’s position is a victory for the county, said Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction.

“That is good news for our property taxpayers,” he said.

Home rule legislation is supported by the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators, but has been blocked at the state level by lawmakers who refuse to sponsor the proposal in the Senate.

The county wants to increase its sales tax from 3 to 4 percent, bringing the total — with the state’s 4 percent — to 8 percent.

But lawmakers so far have not been able to persuade state Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, or Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, to introduce legislation that would allow the county to act. Both lawmakers have signed pledges not to raise taxes.

“We’ve got to get a state Senate sponsor,” Mr. Morrill said. “We will be seeking one, but they consider that a new tax.”

“The people of St. Lawrence County want lower property taxes and Senators Ritchie and Griffo have been standing in the way of that happening by not supporting home rule legislation. St. Lawrence County government will lower property taxes with our plan and it’s time for the senators to end the stonewalling and carry home rule legislation,” Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, said.

Mrs. Ritchie would not commit to sponsoring the legislation Tuesday. One of her prior arguments against the bill was that the governor would not sign it.

“I continue to believe that, in order to rebuild our economy and create the better jobs that our region so desperately needs, government at every level must gain control of its runaway taxes and spending,” she said in a statement. “I will continue to discuss with county leaders their request and the need to bring relief to hardworking county taxpayers.”

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

“I think the plan shows that it is not a new tax. We’re not going to do anything differently; we’re not going to spend more money,” Mr. Morrill said. “That plan clearly shows that no matter whether we get it or not, we’re going to do the same thing.”

To help make its case, the county prepared a five-year plan showing how it could reduce property taxes if it had a sales tax of 4 percent.

With a sales tax hike, the tax levy could drop 14.3 percent in 2014.

“I think the governor’s seen our plan, and I think that is why he said he could do that,” Mr. Morrill said.

An increase in the sales tax also could help rebuild the county’s fund balance — now circling around 1 percent of the total budget — back up to 3 percent, which is still below the recommendation of the state comptroller’s office.

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