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St. Lawrence County budget includes promised tax cut

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire will unveil a tentative budget to legislators Monday that includes an approximate 14 percent property tax decrease made possible by the pending increase in the sales tax.

“Are we going to give what we promised? Yes, we are,” Ms. St. Hilaire said. “We have lived up to our commitment we made to the people of the county and our state legislators. We are happy to achieve those parameters.”

Ms. St. Hilaire declined to reveal further details of the budget, which has not been seen by legislators yet. It was prepared by an administrative team and discussed in broad strokes with Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, and Finance Committee Chairman Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction.

“I want to wait until budget deliberations begin,” Mr. Putney said.

The budget does not include any layoffs, but some changes are part of the proposal. Department heads were told any new positions had to be completely grant-funded or matched by a reduction in other personnel.

“There are no new net positions,” Ms. St. Hilaire said. “We actually made some modifications, some realignments that we will explain Monday.”

After home rule legislation came through earlier this year, the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators approved an increase in the local sales tax from 3 to 4 percent, which takes effect Dec. 1.

The county expects to rake in about $11 million more in sales tax in 2014 than it did this year because of the increase. Legislators raised property taxes approximately 14 percent for 2013 and then developed a plan to lower property taxes in exchange for the increase in the sales tax.

“I don’t know yet if I will agree with everything the budget team did to get there. I just know they’ve worked very hard to give us what we want,” Mr. Morrill said. “We did say the bottom line was important but if legislators think there should be changes, there will be changes.”

Mr. Morrill said he did not yet have details of what is included in the budget but the budget team had many discussions about how to cut costs in the Sheriff’s Department — which has had cost overruns because of a crowded jail — and the Highway Department, which includes the Solid Waste Department. Legislators have struggled in recent months to deal with declining tonnage at the county transfer stations, which affects the tipping fee.

“There were challenges with the Sheriff’s Department and the Highway Department,” Mr. Morrill said.

The county has in recent years reduced its workforce by 150 employees, resulting in decreased costs for health insurance and pensions. That, coupled with the sales tax increase, gives the county more leeway, said Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon.

“They’ve got lots of money to spend. What are the priorities going to be?” he said. “I would like to think we could get closer to a 20 percent property tax cut.”

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