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St. Lawrence County legislators spar over budget

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County legislators made a series of budget changes Monday to prepare for the risk of not receiving state-tribal compact funds next year and to try to safeguard the five-year fiscal plan used to persuade state lawmakers to approve a sales tax increase.

The Board of Legislators has spent weeks bickering over the best way to cut the $1.5 million in compact funding for next year that officials fear will not materialize if land claims negotiations fall apart.

“It’s fictitious money until it’s in our hands,” Legislator Jim A. Bunstone, D-Potsdam, said. “It’s money we hope we get, and we can’t spend that money.”

Mr. Bunstone blamed Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire for the squabbles between legislators over whether to cut expenses and boost revenues or borrow from the fund balance. She included the compact money in the preliminary budget she gave legislators despite their instructions to leave it out.

“It shouldn’t have happened and now we sit and fight about it,” Mr. Bunstone said. “That’s really the root of the evil. We have to take that money out. When are we going to learn?”

At the recommendation of Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, lawmakers voted mostly along party lines to make additional cuts — including $57,917 in energy costs and $176,482 from a capital reserve — so that along with modifications already made, $800,000 of projected compact funds remain in the budget.

“The goal was to take $1.5 million out,” he said. “We’re not going to make it.”

The long-term result will not matter if the money does not arrive, as any under-budgeting that shows up next year will have to come from the fund balance, Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, said.

“We haven’t cut programs. No one’s been laid off,” he said. “We’ve made it a whole lot more difficult to live up to 2015. It’s just causing more problems for the next year.”

To gain support in Albany for the sales tax increase, legislators pledged to reduce the property tax levy by 14 percent in 2014, which remains in the budget. Legislators could adopt the 2014 budget next week.

The five-year plan that included next year’s property tax decrease also committed to no more than 2 percent tax increases in the final four years.

Achieving the 2 percent could be challenging as the plan’s numbers were based on the 2013 budget, but projections in several departments are off. Emergency Services will likely end the year with an approximate $90,000 deficit, and the Department of Social Services might be down $1 million. The shortfall in Social Services started off at more than $2 million but accountants shaved it downward.

“It’s crazy that these revenue figures are off as much as they are,” Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said.

However, other parts of the county’s financial picture were rosier. Sales tax revenue will be up $250,000 because the increase takes effect Dec. 1. Pension costs were $600,000 lower than expected, and health insurance is $500,000 less. The county is receiving compact money from past years, including $176,000 it expects to come in the mail any day.

Overall, the county will probably boost its fund balance by $1.2 million, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

“I think we will not be in a hole,” she said.

The fund balance holds the key to the five-year plan, Mr. Morrill said.

“If in fact the fund balance grows, I think we’ll be OK,” he said. “If it goes down by anything, we’ll be in trouble.”

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