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Fri., Oct. 9
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St. Lawrence reconsiders sales tax hike


CANTON — St. Lawrence County lawmakers could soon resurrect a proposal to raise the county's 3 percent sales tax to make up for expected budgetary shortfalls this year and next.

The Legislature in January narrowly defeated a proposal raising the county sales tax rate from 3 percent to 4 percent. The current combined county-state sales tax is 7 percent.

Opponents said at the time they were open to considering it later if financial conditions merited the move. One opponent, Finance Committee Chairman Peter W. FitzRandolph, D-Canton, said Monday that time might be sooner rather than later.

"I think it's inevitable that we'll consider it again," he said during the Finance Committee's monthly discussion of cash flow.

County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said state Senate legislation proposes raising the local sales tax cap to 4 percent, meaning the county would not have to get state Legislature approval to raise the tax. She said there is no companion legislation in the Assembly, but that could change.

"It would make the process a lot easier and allow the revenue to flow a lot sooner," she said. "In my opinion, you can't solve the problem by just cutting the budget or by just raising sales tax. It has to be both."

For this year, county officials say they're not counting on $1 million in budgeted revenue from raising the mortgage tax because it's unclear if or when the state Legislature will approve the increase. Combined with a continued decline in sales tax revenue, there could be a 2010 shortfall in the million-dollar range. Officials also project a $9.7 million budget gap in 2011.

"A quarter of the year is done," said Legislator Vernon D. "Sam" Burns, D-Ogdensburg. "We can't wait until we do the budget in November to decide what we're going to do when we're already behind the eightball in 2010."

County Treasurer Robert O. McNeil said the financial picture will become clearer as state lawmakers agree on program aid levels in the 2010-11 budget.

"I don't have any better of a crystal ball than you do," he said. "Hopefully we'll get the $35 million we budgeted from the state."

In the meantime, he said, tax collections are steady, and there is no immediate need for the county to borrow money. Mr. McNeil said the county began March with about $5.4 million in cash on hand, and will end the month with about $5.2 million.

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