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Ritchie meets with St. Lawrence County on sales tax

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State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie made no pledge of support for home rule legislation allowing an increase in the sales tax at a meeting with St. Lawrence County officials Tuesday, but recognized the county was more focused on overall tax relief than in the past.

“It’s been my number one priority to provide tax relief,” said Mrs. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. “I still don’t believe higher taxes is the right thing to do. That being said, I had to give them a lot of credit. The plan they came back with was that every penny raised in sales tax will go to offset property taxes. They did their due diligence and it was really a tax cut plan.”

The county Board of Legislators wants to increase the county sales tax from 3 to 4 percent, bringing the total — with the state’s 4 percent — to 8 percent.

Toward that end, it has developed a five-year plan that shows it could reduce property taxes if it receives the additional sales tax revenue. Mrs. Ritchie did not think the county’s first plan went far enough in tax relief.

Finance Committee Chairman Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, recently revamped the plan — with the approval of his peers — to reduce property taxes in the first year by the approximate amount they were raised for 2013 — slightly more than 14 percent — and then keep levy increases in the subsequent four years to 2 percent annually.

Mr. Morrill, along with Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington; Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg; Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg; County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire, Treasurer Kevin M. Felt and representatives of the Wladis Law Firm, Syracuse, the county’s lobbyist, met with Mrs. Ritchie and members of her staff.

“She didn’t give us any promises but she didn’t say no,” Mr. Morrill said. “She indicated she would go back and talk to her Senate colleagues.”

Mrs. Ritchie said she wanted to speak with Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Utica, and Elizabeth O’C. Little, R-Queensbury, about their feelings on the plan.

“I want my finance people to take a look at it before I make a complete judgment on it,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

She said she was pleased the county came back with a significantly different plan than its original version and said she would meet with county representatives again when they come to Albany on March 7 to talk with Mr. Griffo, Mr. Lightfoot said.

Mr. Burns said he thought the meeting was productive.

“I think she’s allowing the process to go forward,” Mr. Burns said. “I didn’t take it as a negative.”

Mrs. Ritchie also said she wanted the county to do what it could to come to an agreement with its towns and villages on how the additional sales tax would be split, Mr. Lightfoot said.

“A meeting is in the works now,” said M. James Dawson, president of the Town Supervisors Association.

Under a 2009 agreement with the city of Ogdensburg, the county keeps half of what it collects in sales tax and distributes what is left to towns and villages after the city takes its cut of 6.4 percent. Ogdensburg would not receive an increase in the percentage it receives under the county’s plan, but the city would take in more money overall because more sales tax revenue would be collected.

The distribution to the towns and villages for the first 3 percent of local sales tax does not change under the county’s plan. However, the county has proposed the towns and villages would receive only 10 percent of any additional local sales tax collected.

That did not sit well with the municipalities, which have asked for at least 20 percent of the additional revenue. Some municipalities would like the amount raised even higher.

The county is not obliged to distribute sales tax among its towns and villages but has done so since 1965.

“I know the St. Lawrence County Legislature wants the county to reduce the tax burden on property owners, which is fine,” Mr. Dawson said.

However, he argues that towns and villages deserve an equitable distribution of the money because of the different tax rates among municipalities based on assessed valuation.

“If you have a bigger tax base, you don’t have to charge as much per thousand,” Mr. Dawson said.

The county levy takes that into account with an equalization rate that levels the playing field among municipalities when it comes to county property taxes, but the rates for individual town and village budgets stand on their own value. If the county is able to lower its levy but town and village expenses continue to rise without the benefit of additional sales tax, property owners will still be dinged, he said.

“That’s where the inequality comes in. That is the issue,” Mr. Dawson said. “Each taxpayer gets hit with a different amount.”

Not every town has supported a sales tax increase, but most understand the county’s dilemma, Mr. Dawson said.

“We don’t have unanimity, but there is consensus. It’s imperative we present a united front,” he said. “It’s not us versus them. We need to come together on some fairness issues.”

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