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Sales tax discussion heats up

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County’s pending budget crisis has reignited discussion of a 1 percent increase in the local sales tax and how supporters could convince state representatives to back them up with enabling legislation.

Town supervisors leery over the possibility that county legislators will keep one-third of the sales tax traditionally distributed to local municipalities agreed to support a public referendum that would offer voters a choice between a 1 percent increase in sales tax and a potential 18.5 percent increase in property taxes.

Home rule legislation which would allow the Board of Legislators to decide on a sales tax increase has the support of Assemblywoman Addie Jenne Russell, D-Theresa, but has lacked a Senate sponsor.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people calling the office are opposed to a sales tax increase. Other than a small handful, people are telling me ‘hold your guns,’” state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said. “People come up to me all the time and say they can’t do more. From day one, I’ve said I did not support raising taxes. I’m not going to change my position. I don’t think raising taxes would turn the economy around and put people back to work.”

Mrs. Ritchie said she might support the results of a public referendum if the choice was presented fairly.

“I have always said I am an advocate of public referendums and of letting the people decide,” she said. “We want to make sure the information out there is correct. Those same people who are paying the property taxes would pay the sales tax too which is more of an increase.”

Mrs. Ritchie said she did not want people to plunge into supporting an increase in the sales tax if it was being used as a scare tactic.

County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire is to present a tentative budget to legislators Monday that will project a property tax increase of at least 18.5 percent. Last year, the county also cried poor but ended up with a tax increase close to its cap, Mrs. Ritchie said.

Legislators have missed opportunities in the past to cut expenses, said Mrs. Ritchie, the former county clerk.

“They said they were going to take some hard looks at things,” she said. “I’m not so sure how many things they actually cut.”

Mrs. Ritchie declined to talk specifics, but legislators in recent months decided to rebuild the Certified Home Health Care Agency rather than sell it, opted not to pursue outsourcing the Solid Waste Department, and purchased a financial software system for more than $700,000.

Not considering a public referendum on sales tax early enough that it could appear on the Nov. 6 ballot was not thinking ahead, Mrs. Ritchie said. If a referendum takes place this fall, it will cost taxpayers $150,000 for the special election.

Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Utica, did not return several phone calls but he has not supported a sales tax increase for the county in the past and has deferred to Mrs. Ritchie as the county’s home senator.

Mrs. Ritchie’s Democratic challenger, Amy M. Tresidder, an Oswego County legislator, said she would introduce home rule legislation for St. Lawrence if she defeats Mrs. Ritchie in November.

“I see it as a lack of representation for the area,” Mrs. Tresidder said. “She serves St. Lawrence County.“

It should not matter whether Mrs. Ritchie agrees with an increase in sales tax or not, Mrs. Tresidder said.

“If she’s asked to carry legislation, she should do that,” Mrs. Tresidder said. “Basically, she’s telling the legislators she knows better. That’s not her job.”

State government should not have a role in how much a county’s sales tax is because local legislators are more available to constituents than their Albany counterparts, she said.

“The accountability is there locally,” Mrs. Tresidder said. “Those decisions should be done locally.”

Mrs. Tresidder also scoffed at the notion that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would not sign home rule legislation for St. Lawrence County.

“I haven’t seen anything to back that up,” she said.

However, Sen. Elizabeth O’C. Little, R-Queensbury, who will represent part of the county when redistricting takes effect in January, said the mood in Albany is rough going for any tax increase. She also represents Essex and Hamilton counties, both of which want increases in their local sales tax.

“We have the bills. They haven’t been voted on. They’re just there,” Mrs. Little said. “We can have it ready, but the atmosphere has to change. Increasing any taxes right now does not help New York. If things improve, there may be a time. I understand the frustration. We’re going to work hard this year to get mandate relief.”

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