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St. Lawrence County may turn to chamber to boost bed tax collections

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CANTON — A new system may be set up to make sure all overnight lodging facilities in St. Lawrence County, including campgrounds, collect and turn in the 3 percent county bed tax to the county’s coffers as required.

County legislators are concerned they may be losing out on a substantial amount of revenue because the law that established the occupancy tax lacks a strong enforcement mechanism. The tax has generated an average of $360,000 annually for the past three years.

Some lodging facilities may not be aware they’re supposed to be collecting 3 percent tax per room, per night from their overnight guests. Others may be underreporting or underpaying the county Treasurer’s Office, which collects the tax quarterly.

Lawmakers are discussing a proposal that would make the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, 101 Main St., responsible for registering new and existing lodging businesses including hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and camping facilities. Much of the work would involve identifying businesses that have not been collecting the bed tax and educating them.

In exchange, the county would increase its funding to the chamber by 2 percent each year over the $183,366 allocated for this year. The chamber also would receive 50 percent of any growth in the bed tax revenue over the baseline amount of $360,000.

“It’s an interesting proposal that might help bring additional bed tax in,” County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire told legislators at their last Finance Committee meeting.

County Chamber Director Patricia L. McKeown said her agency could gather information because it already has relationships with area hotels and other lodging facilities

“We don’t really have a good handle on who is paying the bed tax. It’s been on the honor system for a long time,” Mrs. McKeown said. “There is no bed-and-breakfast cop going around counting the pillows.”

Legislator Stephen M. Putman, D-Canton, said it’s his understanding that several businesses are not turning in bed tax revenues to the county.

“I’ve spoken to people who pay the bed tax and they were of the opinion that a number aren’t paying,” he said.

Legislator Daniel F. Parker, R-Potsdam, said he would like county officials to examine how other counties enforce their bed tax collections.

“I think we need to investigate what other counties are doing to put teeth into their laws,” Mr. Parker said.

Legislator Donald A. Peck, R-Gouverneur, said legislators could be policing their own legislative districts to make sure that lodging establishments are turning in the bed tax money.

Ms. McKeown said extra revenue from bed tax would help the agency fulfill its mission of promoting the area’s tourism sites. Allocating more funds to the chamber provides an incentive for her staff to identify where bed tax should be collected.

“It would be an educational process for awhile. We would work with the treasurer’s office,” she said. “I think the plan is suitable for both. The more money that comes in to the county, the better for all entities.”

The proposal is expected to be discussed again at the 5:30 p.m. Dec. 16 Finance Committee meeting.

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