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St. Lawrence County budget projects 20 percent tax increase

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CANTON - A 20 percent tax levy increase was part of the budget presentation made to the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators by Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire Monday.

“Not pretty, but it is what it is,” she said. “While our appropriations have increased annually by a manageable average of approximately 2.9 percent and our revenues by 2.6 percent over the past four years, the gap between the two continues to expand. This year that gap is $9.3 million.”

Without much of a fund balance to offset a hike in property taxes, she is projecting an increase in the tax rate from $8.72 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $10.38 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Some of the measures she recommended include elimination of cancer prevention services and cuts in funding for most outside agencies, including the county Arts Council, the county Historical Association, and libraries.

The county Industrial Development Agency, the county Chamber of Commerce, Cornell Cooperative Extension and Soil & Water Conservation District would have funding cut 10 percent.

Costs for health insurance are estimated at $20.8 million for 2013 — compared with $14.6 million in 2008. Pension costs could rise to $8.4 million next year. In 2008, they were $3.2 million.

Ms. St. Hilaire’s budget estimates sales tax revenue at the same level as this year.

An option that the county consider keeping one third of the sales tax it traditionally distributes to towns and villages went over like a lead balloon, she said.

She proposed capital bonding to pay for $4 million in highway improvements, $500,000 for IT upgrades, and $1 million for buildings and grounds, which would include two roof replacements.

Ms. St. Hilaire pointed to staff cuts of 105 positions over the last five years as evidence the county has been reducing its costs.

Legislators approved contracts with the Civil Service Employees Association and the county Deputies Association.

For CSEA, salary increases will be 0 percent in 2012, a $600 lump sum in 2013, and 1.75 percent in 2014. Increased co-pays for medications and medical visits will be phased in.

The road deputies will receive lump sum payments of $1,250 each for 2010 and 2011. They will not receive a salary increase for 2012 and a new step system will come into play in 2013.

For 2014, they will receive step increases only. They will begin paying 10 percent toward the cost of a single health insurance plan Jan. 1 as other unions already have. Their co-pays also will increase.

A majority of legislators also voted to hire the Wladis Law Firm, Syracuse, for $5,000 per month, plus expenses, to lobby on the county’s behalf in Albany.

While supporters argued their voice in Albany is often drowned out, detractors said the county lacks the money to retain a hired gun, especially if the main purpose is to argue for a sales tax increase.

“This truly is about the sales tax issue,” Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, said. “We have to deal with what we have, Do you think the will of the people is that they want new taxes?”

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