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St. Lawrence County administrator refuses legislator request to detail cuts

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire has refused a request from Finance Committee Chairman Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, to have department heads come up with $5.2 million in non-mandated spending cuts for legislators to consider as they try to pare down a 20 percent increase in the tax levy.

“I do not feel that I can, or should, provide you with additional dollar amount cuts from individual departments as you requested,” she wrote Mr. Morrill in an email. “To do so is, in my opinion, tantamount to providing you with a second tentative budget. I believe we have already done this process in the preparation of the official tentative budget and it now is up to you to identify further cuts you wish to make.”

Mr. Morrill made his request Thursday with a suggested dollar amount reduction for each department that could demonstrate job losses if non-mandated services were cut or eliminated. He also wanted an estimate of actual benefit savings.

Mr. Morrill is looking for a total of $7 million in levy reduction, which would include a 10 percent decrease in the amount of sales tax distributed to towns and villages. That would reduce the levy increase to 5.02 percent, close to the tax cap.

Ms. St. Hilaire earlier provided legislators with an option of keeping one-third of the sales tax given to towns and villages. That proposal was quickly opposed by town supervisors and village mayors.

Legislators cannot stomach a 20 percent tax increase, Mr. Morrill said.

“There is a strong will within the board to make drastic cuts,” he said. “The levy increase amount is difficult for us to accept, so this effort is needed. Each of the cuts will be considered on their own merits, and will depend on the will of the board to reduce the potential tax levy versus providing services.”

Mr. Morrill said Ms. St. Hilaire’s response was disappointing.

“She’s going to all lengths to protect her budget,” he said. “I didn’t ask for cuts. I’m looking for analysis. I will do my own analysis but it won’t be as expert as what we could have had.”

In her response to Mr. Morrill, Ms. St. Hilaire, who declined to comment further, wrote that she was following county law by presenting a tentative budget that legislators could amend by majority vote.

She wrote that a budget team of three Republicans and three Democrats, including Mr. Morrill, met several times to discuss options. Documents she gave legislators at the time identified short-term and longer-term savings if non-mandated programs were cut.

For example, cutting the sheriff’s criminal division but keeping officers on to transport prisoners would cut $944,244 in the first year and have a long-term effect of reducing department costs by $1.6 million annually.

Eliminating the criminal division would not mean the end of all deputies, because the department has the responsibility of bringing inmates to courts around the county.

Mr. Morrill’s request was for Sheriff Kevin M. Wells to show how $1.8 million could be cut from his department.

Ms. St. Hilaire earlier said that cutting all non-mandated services would amount to $4.5 million.

Mr. Morrill also wanted the ramifications of cutting $250,000 from Community Services, $150,000 from the county attorney, $100,000 from governmental services, $1.2 million from Highway, $100,000 from Social Services and $1 million from Ms. St. Hilaire’s office. Other departments were asked to come up with cuts under $100,000.

Money budgeted through Ms. St. Hilaire’s office includes contracted services with the county Soil & Water Conservation District, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Industrial Development Agency and county Chamber of Commerce.

The tentative budget proposes a cut of 10 percent for those agencies.

Mr. Morrill said he was looking for more detail from department heads on what more drastic cuts could mean.

“I’m not saying the cuts will happen,” Mr. Morrill said. “It’s either a choice between having a high tax rate or cutting deeply. No one was asking for choices, so I asked for choices.”

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