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Trustees consider support for possible sales-tax hike


MASSENA — The village board of trustees is divded on whether to support a possible 1 percentage point sales-tax increase for St. Lawrence county.

Village Mayor James F. Hidy introduced home rule legislation to let the county consider a possible increase of sales tax at last Wednesday’s board meeting. After some debate and discussion, the board voted to table the legislation , and re-examine it after it had a chance to discuss the measure with county legislators.

“This resolution allows the county to go ahead and pass legislation so if in fact they need to increase sales tax, they have that tool already in place.” Mr. Hidy said.

However, support for home rule does not necessarily mean the county will be able to raise its sales tax from 3 to 4 percent (on top of the statewide 4 percent sales tax). Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has stated he’s against a possible sales tax hike in St. Lawrence county, and would like to see the county explore other avenues to balance its budget, County Legislator Daniel F. Parker said. The tax increase is ultimately decided by the Governor’s office, and the home rule legislation is an effort to persuade them otherwise.

“If the towns all support home rule, and the county wants to support the sales tax increase, it’s pretty clear to the state that that’s what they want,” Mr. Parker said.

Mr. Hidy said he would like the county to increase sales tax by 1 percentage point because he finds it preferable to the alternatives, which include a property tax hike and a redistribution of county sales tax revenue to the individual municipalities.Redistributing sales tax could mean a 10 percent reduction in each municipality’s sales tax revenue, which would put a huge burden on many local communities, because most have already completed their 2013 budgets, Mr. Parker said.

“That (reduction) would be much less painful in 2014 because then they’d have had time to prepare budgets,” Mr. Parker said.

As for the other option, Mr. Hidy said he would prefer a sales tax hike over a property tax hike, because property taxes are mandatory, whereas an individual has some control over how much they pay in sales tax. Mr. Parker said the county will need to increase the property tax levy by 14 percent if it does not pursue an increase in sales tax revenue.

“Once you increase the property tax, everybody has to pay it. You have no choice — it’s there,” Mr. Hidy said. “As far as the sales tax goes, maybe you have to rethink what you purchase, maybe just curb your spending a little bit.”

However, trustee Francis J. Carvel noted that raising the sales tax, as opposed to property tax, may not necessarily benefit members of the community.

“Most people here are spending all their income,” Mr. Carvel said. “Everything you buy is taxable. The groceries themselves and your mortgage are just about the only things that are not taxable.”

Mr. Carvel pointed out that a family with $40,000 in discretionary spending — after paying their taxes, home-payments and purchasing groceries — will have to pay an extra $400 per year in sales tax.

Trustee Timothy J. Ahlfeld agreed with Mr. Hidy’s position, noting that a property tax hike might be detrimental to local business.

“If you’re going to raise property taxes, that’s going to have a huge effect on our major employer here — a few of our major employers,” Mr. Ahlfeld said.

Mr. Carvel also pointed out that a sales tax increase is only a temporary solution to budget deficiancies.

“The counties that have raised the sales tax over a period of time — they’re now at 8 or 9 percent - they’re in trouble,” Mr. Carvel said. “The fact is five years from now, or 10 years, you will face the same thing again, and you can’t raise (the sales tax) anymore.”

Mr. Parker agreed with that position, saying he’s concerned the county will quickly spend its added revenue and will then have fewer options for generating more.

“We’re going to be in the same boat two or three years from now,” he said.

A third option to balance the county’s budget is to eliminate discretionary spending, which means cutting services that are not mandated by law. The county has already explored ways to improve efficiency, such as combining job functions and eliminating unnecessary travel with county vehicles, Mr. Parker said. The county has also cut a variety of services, including a new mothers program, a substance addiction program and a mental health program, he said. The only way to cut spending even further is to eliminate county jobs, which does not fully alleviate costs because the county then has to pay for the laid-off workers’ retirement or unemployment benefits.

Mr. Parker suggests concerned citizens mail a handwritten, hard-copy letter to the Governor or their local legislator.

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