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St. Lawrence County changes budget system

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CANTON — The St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators is changing its budget parameters so that spending is based more on available revenue and less on department requests as a way to get a better handle on the county’s finances.

Budgets in the past have been determined by looking at the needs of county government and then finding the revenue to pay for them rather than basing services on what money is at hand.

“This philosophically switches that around,” said Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, chairman of the county Finance Committee. “We’re going to look at revenue first. It’s a big switch.”

The county has struggled in recent years with a declining fund balance siphoned away to offset property tax increases. Last year, the practice culminated with little money left in the bank and the county raised property taxes more than 14 percent.

The county has since adopted a five-year plan — dependent on the state Legislature’s granting it permission to raise its local sales tax — that would lower property taxes to 2012 figures and keep them within the tax cap in the out years.

While local lawmakers are optimistic that the state will approve a home-rule law allowing the county to raise its sales tax from 3 to 4 percent, passage of the legislation is far from certain.

Republican representatives have not sponsored a Senate version of the Assembly bill introduced by Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, who offered the law to see if she can deliver the votes before the Senate signs on. A Senate plan to include a sales tax increase for the county as part of a state budget package that would allow increases up to 4 percent across-the-board was opposed by the Assembly.

“We’re waiting to hear from the assemblywoman how this will proceed,” said Sarah V. Compo, spokeswoman for Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.

Rayan A. Aguam, spokesman for Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, said Mr. Griffo, Mrs. Ritchie and Sen. Elizabeth O’C. “Betty” Little, R-Queensbury, are talking among themselves on what they want to do.

“A decision hasn’t been made on sponsoring a Senate version of Assemblywoman Russell’s St. Lawrence County sales tax bill,” Mr. Aguam wrote in an email.

Not having a “same as” bill in the Senate makes passage in the Assembly more challenging, Mrs. Russell said.

“It’s highly irregular. I’m not sure there’s any precedence when there’s no companion bill,” she said. “This is some that is not routine. It’s an uphill battle but it’s something St. Lawrence County deserves.”

Mrs. Russell’s home rule legislation is in the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee.

“I’m working with the committee to get it on the floor as quickly as possible,” she said.

If passage by both the Assembly and Senate is not achieved by the end of May, Mrs. Russell said it is unlikely St. Lawrence County will see any additional revenue this year because of reporting requirements that result in a lag time for collection to start.

The county’s new budget parameters will determine how the county spends whatever money it has, regardless of what happens to a sales tax increase, Mr. Morrill said.

He put together a budget guideline for 2014 that factors in a projected inflation rate of 1.87 percent, salary increases of 2.35 percent, health insurance hikes of 7.5 percent and pension increases of 12.5 percent, showing how those costs would affect each department.

That allows legislators to easily grasp how much of each department’s costs are attributable to the costs they do not control, Mr. Morrill said.

“It empowers the department heads and it challenges them. They should work hard to stay within these parameters,” he said. “This doesn’t call for anyone to lose their job. This also doesn’t require a drastic cut in any department. County residents and employees can rest assured we’re going to provide the services and their jobs are relatively safe.”

Other legislators, including Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, applauded Mr. Morrill’s effort, but he said the county should try to stay within its state mandated tax cap, which would be an increase of about 4 percent.

“We’re at the end of the road. This ought to be looked at as something not to be exceeded,” Mr. Lightfoot said. “If additional cuts can be made beyond what Legislator Morrill has come up with, I would encourage that.”

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