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St. Lawrence legislators tell clerk to bring in more money

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CANTON — To the dismay of St. Lawrence County Clerk Mary Lou Rupp, legislators said Monday that they are counting on her department to rake in more money in 2014.

“It’s irresponsible of me to put it in there,” she said of additional revenue included in the budget. “It’s irresponsible of you.”

Last year, legislators told Mrs. Rupp to add staff to pump up the business the clerk’s office does with downstate auto dealers for a projected revenue of $1.7 million, a figure Mrs. Rupp said was inflated.

This year, the tentative budget projects the department’s downstate registration revenue at $1.4 million.

While complimenting Mrs. Rupp on the contribution of her department to the financial well-being of the county, Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, gave her a challenge.

“I’m ready to ask for more revenue,” Mr. Morrill said.

Annual increases are not always possible, Mrs. Rupp said.

“This is not my budget,” she said. “It’s yours.”

Other revenue from the clerk’s office has dropped because of a down cycle in license renewals caused by the state’s switch from a five-year term to an eight-year cycle, Mrs. Rupp said. The down cycle is expected to continue in 2014. The state has also pushed for mail-in or online renewals, which cuts the county out of a share of the fees.

Other county clerks have caught on to what St. Lawrence County is doing in handling downstate registrations, and processing centers are springing up in the New York City metropolitan area, she said.

If the downstate registration revenue drops by $150,000 — the amount Mrs. Rupp estimated last year more staff people would bring in to the county — her office might stand to lose employees, Mr. Morrill said.

“Sounds like we need one less person,” he said.

Even though she hired a new employee this year, the department still has two fewer people than in previous years, Mrs. Rupp said. Reducing her staff eliminates any potential for growth, she said.

“What I have in place is a reasonable budget,” she said.

Mr. Morrill wanted to add $230,000 in projected revenue to Mrs. Rupp’s budget, but Legislator Stephen M. Putman, D-Canton, was successful in having legislators reduce the increase to $152,180, the same amount of new revenue budgeted for 2013.

Republicans sounded a note of caution.

“I hate to overestimate revenues,” Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, said. “I have a hard time saying she can come up with more money than she says she can come up with.”

Everyone respects the work of Mrs. Rupp’s department, but the county needs to make good on its promise — in exchange for an increase in the sales tax — to not only drop property taxes in 2014 by 14.2 percent but keep them within a 2 percent increase for the remainder of a five-year plan, Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena, said.

“It’s absolutely no disrespect,” he said. “It’s about the commitment we made across the county.”

Legislators also cut small amounts of money — in the range of $250 to $500 — from several other departments, including the Board of Elections, Veterans Services and Youth Bureau as part of an overall $1.5 million budgetary reduction Mr. Morrill has suggested as a way of dealing with lost revenue if a state/tribal compact falls apart that is expected to give the county that amount of money next year.

Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire suggested instead taking any hit that might come from a $1 million capital reserve fund and $100,000 community reinvestment fund and finding the remainder of the money elsewhere.

“Not budgeting doesn’t mean we don’t pay for it,” she said. “My concern is in order to balance you get people to be unrealistic about what they can do.”

However, Mr. Morrill said the county has to be committed to shaving its costs, including cutting $3 million from this year’s budget, which sliced the increase in the property taxes from 21 percent to 14 percent.

“I believe we have an obligation beyond year one of the five-year plan,” he said. “We are under a lot of scrutiny. I think to backtrack now is a mistake.”

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