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Lewis legislator floating sales tax hike

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LOWVILLE — While this year’s Lewis County budget deliberations are nearly complete, one legislator is pushing the idea of a sales tax hike to help ease the process in upcoming years.

“We don’t have any more rabbits to pull out of the hat,” said Legislator Philip C. Hathway, R-Harrisville.

Mr. Hathway said he plans at Tuesday’s meeting to introduce a proposal to increase the county sales tax rate from 3.75 percent to 4 percent. That would increase the overall rate to 8 percent.

The tentative 2013 budget anticipates sales tax revenue of $9.5 million, meaning a one-quarter-percentage-point hike would be expected to net an additional $633,333 in revenue.

“It would take care of the increase in retirement for next year,” Mr. Hathway said.

The District 1 legislator said he is not certain whether there will be support for the idea on his board or with area state lawmakers — state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Assemblyman Kenneth J. Blankenbush, R-Black River — who would be needed to carry the proposal to Albany.

“We’ll start the conversation, anyway,” he said.

Mr. Griffo is slated to meet with county lawmakers at 3 p.m. Tuesday — before their 5 p.m. regular meeting — to discuss mandate relief measures, so the topic may be brought up then.

Any sales tax increase would require home rule legislation to be passed by the state Legislature and signed by the governor.

St. Lawrence County lawmakers are looking to raise their local sales tax rate from 3 percent to 4 percent. Home-rule legislation for that county has the support of Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, but has lacked a Senate sponsor.

Mr. Griffo in October said he would support the proposal only if it was approved by the majority of St. Lawrence County residents through a referendum, giving more weight for his Senate colleagues. Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, has opposed such an increase.

Lewis County legislators on Tuesday are expected to adopt a 2013 budget that would increase the tax levy, or amount to be raised by property taxes, by $772,724, from $12.76 million to $13.53 million.

The 6.1 percent increase is the maximum allowable increase under state tax cap legislation, which allows municipalities to exclude some debt service and growth in pension costs from their calculations in the so-called 2 percent cap.

The full-value tax rate would rise by 2.6 percent, from $6.99 per $1,000 of true value to $7.17 per $1,000.

Mr. Hathway complained that the allowable increase under tax cap legislation is not sufficient to cover increases for retirement, Medicaid and other state-dictated expenses. Plus, costs for other mandated services are only partly covered by state funding, he said.

“Those bones they’re throwing us are breaking before they hit the ground,” Mr. Hathway said.

While admitting that sales tax is a regressive tax, the legislator noted it is spread among more people, including visitors to the county, than property tax.

Lewis County in June 2004, following passage of state enabling legislation, enacted a local sales tax rate increase from 3 percent to 3.75 percent to help offset increases in Medicaid, retirement and health insurance costs. That hike was renewed in late 2005 and every two years thereafter, with the next expiration date set for Nov. 30, 2013.

County officials will need to determine whether an additional hike, if desired by legislators, would have to be done in conjunction with the next renewal or could be enacted at any time.

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