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Sales tax hike could spell disaster

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The state Senate just before the close of session approved home rule legislation allowing St. Lawrence County to raise its sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent.

I had hoped that the county’s misguided plan to saddle already struggling residents with a higher cost of living had gasped its last when there was no action Friday. My hope was dashed Saturday.

Proponents of a sales tax increase appear to have successfully convinced a lot of people that raising the tax will result in lower property taxes. There is no guarantee that will happen.

There is a big problem with the county’s five-year plan to turn its financial situation around based entirely on the cash windfall it will receive from raising its local sales tax.

The glaring flaw is this: all 15 lawmakers are all up for election next year. Their five-year plan to use the money to lower property taxes doesn’t mean squat if a majority of those who are on board with the plan don’t get re-elected. One board cannot bind a future board to do anything, and if I were them, I wouldn’t take my Legislature seat for granted.

No one will ever convince me that raising the sales tax is a good idea. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if government gets more money to spend, the politicians will spend it.

They might start fondling their newfound sales tax money with the intent to lower property taxes, but they sooner or later identify some other pressing need that will soak up that windfall. The next jail expansion is a good candidate. They’re going to need a bigger crowbar hotel to accommodate all the people convicted of theft because the poor just got poorer and more are stealing to survive.

The thought of making poor people even poorer in a county with a median income that has long been among the lowest in the state doesn’t seem to bother county lawmakers, though. My guess is that it won’t bother them until more businesses close and even fewer people can afford to live without some kind of taxpayer-funded public assistance.

And if they don’t follow through with a plan to use sales tax proceeds to lower property taxes, we will all be paying more on both fronts. That is the last thing our fragile economy needs.

A sales tax increase is not the panacea lawmakers have made it out to be, at least not for us. It will, however, spare lawmakers from having to make more unpopular decisions. They won’t have to make painful but necessary spending cuts because they just got a whole other pile of money to play with.

I can’t say the Legislature hasn’t done anything to trim the county’s costs. They have taken some steps. But what they’ve done won’t save us from going over the cliff.

Plus, some of their actions over the last year don’t reflect an air fiscal prudence in the face of crisis. For crying out loud, they gave their department heads raises when a whole lot of people in the private sector making a heck of a lot less money haven’t seen a raise a very long time. They turned down an offer from a newly formed nonprofit agency to buy the county’s Certified Home Health Agency and Long-Term Home Health Care program, opting instead later on to just close them and swallow the loss.

Nobody has talked about the possibility of reducing the county’s bloated law enforcement costs by sharing services with municipal police departments. Nobody has had substantial discussions about reducing the number of justice courts public defense attorneys and prosecutors have to attend to make a lower-cost and more efficient criminal justice system. They haven’t talked seriously about finding more cost-effective health insurance options for employees. Those are just a few things that come to mind. I could go on.

Instead, they’re just going to force everybody to pay more so we can keep on the same path that got the county into its financial mess in the first place.

By about mid-year next year, we will start to see the true effect of a sales tax increase on our residents. We will also see by then what county lawmakers will actually do with their newfound windfall.

Maybe my predictions are wrong. But if they are right, I hope voters react accordingly when legislators seek re-election in 2014.

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