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Dawson suggests change in county’s tax relief plan for property owners

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BRASHER FALLS - Brasher Town Supervisor M. James Dawson says he’s not opposed to St. Lawrence County legislators seeking a 1 percent increase in the sales tax, but he’d like them to consider a change to how they would provide tax relief to property owners.

If they receive authorization to raise the sales tax, legislators are proposing dropping their tax levy 14.3 percent in the first year and holding to an increase of 2 percent in the next four years.

But Mr. Dawson told county legislator Anthony J. Arquiett during this week’s Brasher Town Board meeting that he would rather see tax relief for three years.

“I respectfully suggest you do 7 percent the first year, 4 percent the second year and 3 percent the third year. That way people in St. Lawrence County know that they’ll get a decrease over the next three years instead of one big decrease,” he said.

That, Mr. Dawson suggested, would also allow the county to rebuilt its fund balance.

“I just think that might be an appropriate way to approach it. You would give yourself a chance to build your fund balance. Your plan comes out the same, except you’re doing it in a different manner,” he told Mr. Arquiett.

“I appreciate the suggestion,” Mr. Arquiett said.

St. Lawrence County legislators earlier this month had officially asked for home rule legislation that would allow them to raise the local sales tax and pledged their intend to use the additional revenue for property tax relief.

They want to increase the county sales tax from 3 to 4 percent, bringing the total - with the state’s 4 percent - to 8 percent. Legislators had developed a five-year plan showing how they could drop property taxes with the additional sales tax to gain the support of state Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Utica, and Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.

Mr. Dawson said he had talked with Mr. Griffo this week about the issue.

“He didn’t indicate it had to be 14 percent the first year,” he said, noting the senator’s concerns had been that, if they approve home rule legislation, there was a desire by county legislators to have taxes decrease.

Mr. Dawson suggested Mr. Arquiett contact Sen. Griffo and Sen. Ritchie to see if it would be more acceptable to them if they provided tax relief for three consecutive years with decreases of 7 percent, 4 percent and 3 percent.

Mr. Arquiett, however, said he believed the plan was beneficial the way legislators had laid it out as part of their five-year plan.

He said allowing the county to raise the sales tax 1 percent would allow them to reduce property taxes below the tax cap.

“It would allow us an opportunity to keep property taxes below the cap,” Mr. Arquiett said, noting they would still be tightening their belts and making cuts at the county level.

“Nobody is excited about raising taxes,” he said. “This just brings us up to a level playing field with the rest of the counties.”

Mr. Arquiett suggested the issue towns and villages had was with the redistribution of the sales tax, which would ultimately how much tax relief they would be able to offer property owners.

The present distribution is for the county to keep half of what it collects in sales tax and allot what is left to towns and villages after the city of Ogdensburg takes a cut of 6.4 percent. Some town and village leaders want more than the 10 percent offered by the county of the additional revenue.

“Ten percent is the amount we want to share. We’re looking for cooperation from all the towns and villages to back us on this,” Mr. Arquiett said, noting the county had “a huge amount of mandated programs” they had to implement.

“The alternative is an extreme increase in property tax,” he said. “There’s no other way around it.”

“The issue is, we also have expenses, many of which are the same as the ones you have,” such as fuel costs and employee benefits like health insurance, Mr. Dawson said. “The towns and villages are also having looming problems, some bigger than others. I know what you’re saying. I’m just against you locking in 10 percent and not budging. The towns could get nailed while the county says, ‘We’ve solved our problem.’”

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, weighed in the proposal Thursday, saying she supported the increase and urged the Senate to pass the legislation to allow the move.

“The New York State Senate’s proposal to overhaul the entire process for counties and cities to increase their sales tax and sharing agreements related to sales tax revenue is not the solution for St. Lawrence County’s sales tax request. The plan is like hitting the head of a common pin with a sledge hammer. Similar proposals to turn the entire sales tax process on its head have failed to become law in the past. We cannot afford to play games with people’s health and safety by placing county services in further jeopardy,” she said in a statement.

“I have introduced legislation in the New York State Assembly for several years, and have assurances that the Assembly is ready and able to pass the legislation into law. That cannot occur without the Senate passing the same bill. We have passed Jefferson County’s sales tax requests during the same time period,” Ms. Russell said.

“The people of St. Lawrence County deserve a straight forward piece of legislation that can be passed in both houses, just like every other county in the state with more than a 3 percent sales tax. I continue to call upon my colleagues in the Senate to introduce the bill that allows for a sales tax increase for St. Lawrence County,” she said.

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