The city of Ogdensburg could be caught in the middle if St. Lawrence County legislators pursue keeping some of the sales-tax revenue that the county has traditionally distributed to towns and villages.
County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire is asking legislators to consider keeping one-third of the sales tax it gives to towns and villages as an option that would generate $7 million toward balancing next years budget. A dwindling county fund balance could otherwise mean a property-tax increase of up to 18.5 percent or drastic cuts in non-mandated programs.
The idea of the county keeping sales tax it has distributed for nearly 50 years to local municipalities already has drawn fire from mayors and supervisors. Changing the distribution would mean reopening a 2009 agreement with Ogdensburg.
Under the agreement, which renewed a 2000 deal, the county keeps half of what it collects in sales tax and distributes what is left to towns and villages after the city takes a cut of 6.44 percent.
The agreement, which was approved by the state comptroller, also called for the city and county to discuss any changes to the countys 3 percent sales tax and required that both must agree on changes, as Ogdensburg could lose revenue from altering the tax structure.
While the towns and villages take is included in the agreement, the county is not obligated to distribute that money, Legislative Chairwoman Sallie A. Brothers wrote in a letter. The state enabled the county to collect sales tax in 1965 when Medicaid became a shared expense.
When this decision was made, the Board of Supervisors was comprised of the supervisors from each of the towns, she wrote. They voted to give their towns half of the proceeds of this new revenue stream despite the fact that the costs associated with it were to be borne completely by the county.
But changing the formula would require approval from the city.
Then the burden comes to us, Deputy Mayor Michael D. Morley said. It should not come to us.
Mr. Morley, like many county lawmakers, would prefer to see the countys budget problems solved by a 1 percent increase in the sales tax. But that has not been possible because of the refusal of the countys state senators to introduce enabling legislation.
Im getting pretty frustrated. That would solve everybodys problem, Mr. Morley said. Its a simple solution. We just have to get it done.
Neither state Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Utica, nor Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, was available for comment on whether they are reconsidering the idea.
Mr. Morley said he hates to see anyone lose money.
I would have to have more information, he said. Id like to hear from the towns. Id like to hear from the county, their side.
Legislator Vernon D. Sam Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said the city should pick sides carefully so it does not alienate anyone. Mr. Burns also worried that the city could ask for a larger cut to amend the agreement.
If the city asks for more, I would be concerned the towns would view that negatively, he said.