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Senators back St. Lawrence County sales tax increase

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St. Lawrence County’s three state senators are co-sponsoring home rule legislation that would allow an increase in the local sales tax.

The legislation, which has not yet been affixed with a bill number, will mirror a bill which has already been introduced in the Assembly by Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and would allow the county to increase its sales tax from 3 to 4 percent.

“It’s nice to see sponsorship in the Senate,” said St. Lawrence County Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington.

The bill is being introduced by Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and co-sponsored by Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Elizabeth O’C. Little, R-Queensbury, according to Sarah V. Compo, spokeswoman for Mrs. Ritchie.

Mr. Griffo said that the mere introduction of the legislation, however, does not guarantee its passage.

“I think it may still be a hard thing to get done,” he said, citing general reluctance within the Senate to pass bills that are seen as tax hikes.

Mrs. Russell was more direct, calling out the Senate Republican conference for resisting this legislation for St. Lawrence County on ideological grounds.

“Passage of any of these bills is uncertain because there is a view within the Republican conference that they do not want to support them. It’s less a question of whether there are enough votes … the Senate Republican conference is not even willing to allow these to come to the floor,” Mrs. Russell said.

But the legislation Mrs. Russell sponsored in the Assembly isn’t making much progress.

Currently the legislation in the Assembly is on the docket for consideration by the Ways and Means Committee – where it’s been since February.

Mrs. Russell said she has confidence that with the Senators taking up the “same as” legislation in the upper house, she will be able to move her bill along in the Assembly.

County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said she was pleased by the news.

“The only thing that would make me happier is if the bill passes,” she said.

There are 52 counties that want sales tax extensions and a number seeking increases, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

“I would certainly hope St. Lawrence County would not be singled out for rejection,” she said.

Although Sen. Griffo thought it unlikely the county’s request would be acted on this month, approval in May would mean about $3 million in revenue that was not included in the budget.

“It would help our fund balance when the comptroller is saying we are in dire need,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

Mrs. Russell acknowledged that “the timeline is getting very tight,” though she said it’s “fantastic” the three St. Lawrence County senators are now on board.

The money gained by the sales tax increase could boost the fund balance or help the county with some of its neglected capital needs, such as replacing equipment and repairing leaking roofs, County Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said.

“We certainly are not getting involved in spending a lot of money or adding staff,” he said. “We understand the taxpayers have had enough.”

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