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Massena Village Board supports possible effort to increase county sales tax

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MASSENA — The village Board of Trustees last week threw its support behind the move to allow the St. Lawrence County Legislature to raise the sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent.

It still is doubtful that the home-rule petition designed to alleviate the county’s fiscal crisis will succeed, as state Sens. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, have been cool to the tax hike and their support is critical to advancing the measure in Albany. Nonetheless, local resolutions supporting home-rule legislation have been on the agenda at town and village board meetings around the county in recent weeks.

Massena village trustees approved their resolution 3-2 on Tuesday. Mayor James F. Hidy, Councilwoman Patricia K. “Trish” Wilson and Councilman Timothy J. Ahlfeld voted in support of the measure; Councilmen Albert C. “Herb” Deshaies and Francis J. Carvel voted against it.

County Legislators Gregory M. Paquin, D-Massena, and Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, who presented the proposal to the village board, said raising the sales tax is the best way to overcome the multimillion-dollar shortfall facing county government.

“The reality is we’re in a tough spot,” Mr. Putney said. “There are a lot of things we shouldn’t have to be doing now. We’re up against the wall.”

To help reduce a projected 20 percent increase in the county property tax levy, legislators first considered keeping for the county more of the sales tax revenue that is distributed to towns and villages. The village of Massena receives approximately $1 million in sales tax revenue each year.

A 1-percentage-point sales tax increase could mean a stable property tax over the same period along with regrowth of the fund balance, county officials have said.

Mr. Putney noted one advantage to a sales tax increase — as opposed to a property tax increase — is that a number of people outside the county contribute to sales tax revenue.

“We have the opportunity to take advantage of the Canada effect and college students,” he said.

The legislators also noted that unless more revenue is generated, the county will have to cut services and continue to lay off county employees. Mr. Paquin said that since 2010, St. Lawrence County has laid off 137 employees.

“If we don’t get the sales tax increase, I do not see how we can keep the county road patrol, I do not see how we can keep the chemical dependency program, (or anything else) that’s not mandated,” Mr. Paquin said.

“When you talk about services, people provide the service,” Mr. Hidy said. “So it’s ultimately going to help a struggling county.”

Joseph Macauley, one of several Massena residents who addressed the board about the sales tax issue, expressed disappointment that neither the town nor the village would receive a portion of the additional revenue if the increase is passed.

“What advantage to the village is there for the government to support this 1 percent increase?” Mr. Macauley asked.

“You’re going to do one of two things: you’re either going to pay a higher village tax bill or a higher county tax bill,” Mr. Ahlfeld said.

Mr. Putney also noted that St. Lawrence County uses sales tax revenue to fund rising Medicaid costs, and said the county shares a larger portion of its sales tax revenue than most counties in the state.

Several village officials and residents criticized a higher sales tax as regressive, disproportionately hitting low-income people. Others maintained that an increase has not worked so well in other counties.

“If you look at just about every county that has a higher sales tax than St. Lawrence County, they’re in trouble,” Mr. Carvel said.

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