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Jefferson County sales tax down third quarter in a row

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Sales tax collections again were up for Lewis and St. Lawrence counties in the second quarter of 2013 while Jefferson County recovered slightly but not enough to reverse a slide toward an overall loss for the year.

Sales tax collections are down for the third quarter in a row as Jefferson County heads into what may be its most difficult budget season in 10 years, according to figures released Tuesday by Legislator Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown.

The numbers show that the county is doing only slightly better than three months ago, when sales tax collections were down nearly 2 percent compared with the same period last year.

This time, that number is only 1.79 percent — a small improvement that offers little comfort.

“We are in a very precarious situation heading into what might be our most difficult budget in nearly a decade,” Mr. Gray said in an email to legislators. “We have been experiencing stagnation of state and federal funds and now sales tax.”

As in the previous two quarters, sales tax estimates looked promising at first, only to plunge well below projections in the third month of the quarter, when accounts are reconciled with the state.

According to estimates, after distributing revenue to its towns, villages and the city of Watertown, Jefferson County collected $2.9 million in July, 9.64 percent more than the same month last year, and $2.8 million in August, 7.8 percent more than last year.

Once the accounts were reconciled, however, the county recorded sales tax receipts of $3,447,164 for September — a 15.04 percent decrease compared with the $4,057,245 earned in September 2012.

The reconciled numbers represent a loss of $144,071 for the quarter and a 1.54 percent dip in sales tax revenue compared with the same quarter last year.

For 2013 thus far, the county itself has collected $25,299,887 — 1.79 percent less than last year.

Mr. Gray is projecting a sales tax shortfall of $500,000 to $750,000 for 2013.

The news, while not surprising, reinforces the notion that this will be a challenging year for administrators and legislators alike as they try to write next year’s budget.

“We were somewhat prepared for this,” said Legislator Michael J. Docteur, R-Cape Vincent, vice chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators. “It doesn’t look like we’ll make budget with sales tax. I expect this year to be challenging at best.”

To compound the problem, the county is dangerously close to its recommended general fund balance, which decreased by $2.7 million from $39.8 million to $37.1 million this year, according to the Cheektowaga accounting firm Drescher & Malecki, LLP.

That figure includes other funds that have not yet been committed, according to County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

Mr. Hagemann said that county officials aim to keep enough cash on hand to cover 2 months’ worth of expenses. For Jefferson County, that figure is around $32 million.

Right now the county’s reserve fund balance is at approximately $26 million, Mr. Hagemann said.

“It’s more the trend that is of concern than the exact number,” Mr. Hagemann said.

The county recently spent $2.2 million from its fund balance to acquire Tom Brouty Aircraft Service, a fixed-base-operations company formerly owned by Thomas R. Brouty at the Watertown International Airport, and approximately $500,000 on various programs, including a sizable chunk on outboarding inmates from the overcrowded Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building.

While Mr. Gray called the investment at the airport “appropriate,” he expressed reservations about the use of fund balance to meet expenses, even though the county likely will be forced to do the same thing in 2014.

“Our sources of revenue need to be matched with expenses, our sources of revenue are flat while our expenses have natural growth, which will make this budget difficult,” he wrote in his email to legislators. “If anyone desires to increase cost we will need to sacrifice in other areas by cutting or be willing to raise property taxes in order to meet expenses.”

In St. Lawrence County, sales tax revenues were up by 5.06 percent for the quarter that ended Sept. 13, possibly because of the Bassmaster Elite Series that took place in Waddington in August.

From July through mid-September, the county generated $11,211,495.44 in sales tax, an increase of $540,470.50 over the same period last year, when the county took in $10,671,024.94.

“I certainly think 34,000 people coming to a four-day event will have an impact,” St. Lawrence County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

The period covered by the increase also was the height of the tourism season, she said.

State officials told St. Lawrence County Treasurer Kevin M. Felt that automotive sales were up by about $130,000 and collection on formerly unpaid sales tax was up by about $100,000.

“Half of the increase was that,” he said.

The 5 percent increase in the quarter was in keeping with the state average, Mr. Felt said.

So far this year, the county will receive $32,329,358.64, an increase of 3.41 percent over the previous period in 2012, when its sales tax receipts were at $31,263,443.90.

The additional $1,065,914.74 is welcome news, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

The county budgeted $42.1 million in sales tax receipts for 2013, but is estimating final figures will be close to $43 million.

“This looks like it will go over so it will go to fund balance,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

Lewis County also recorded an increase.

The county received $2,804,844 in sales tax receipts for the third quarter of 2013, an increase of 5.31 percent over the $2,663,476 generated during the same period last year.

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