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Tue., Oct. 6
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
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Spending limits


St. Lawrence County officials have been making fiscal decisions on a wing and a prayer, and it’s bound to catch up to them soon.

Members of the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators have been squabbling in recent weeks over next year’s budget. They weren’t helped at all by Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire, who went against the directive of legislators by including funds from a questionable source in the proposed spending plan.

Ms. St. Hilaire put state-tribal compact funds in the budget. But officials fear they may not receive the revenue if land claim negotiations are not settled. They instructed Ms. St. Hilaire not to include this revenue in the budget, but she ignored them.

“It’s fictitious money until it’s in our hands,” Legislator Jim A. Bunstone, D-Potsdam, said in an article in Tuesday’s issue of the Watertown Daily Times. “It’s money we hope we get, and we can’t spend that money.”

This resulted in several weeks of bickering between legislators on how to cut $1.5 million from the 2014 budget, which could be adopted by the board next week. At their meeting Monday, board members voted to amend the proposed budget. Changes included a cut of $57,917 in energy costs and $176,482 from a capital reserve.

But they came nowhere near the $1.5 million they wanted to shave. When all was said and done Monday, $800,000 of the projected compact funds was left in the budget.

Legislators have been walking a fiscal tightrope since they convinced members of the New York State Legislature to approve an increase in the county’s sales tax. They presented state lawmakers with a five-year fiscal plan promising relief to residents in the form of lower property taxes.

“To gain support in Albany for the sales tax increase, legislators pledged to reduce the property tax levy by 14 percent in 2014, which remains in the budget,” according to Tuesday’s article in the Times. “The five-year plan that included next year’s property tax decrease also committed to no more than 2 percent tax increases in the final four years.”

It’s true that Ms. St. Hilaire should have left the compact funds out of the proposed budget. But given that legislators have not been able to completely remove these funds themselves, it’s clear county officials are having trouble making hard decisions.

Legislators expect that the increase in sales tax revenue they’ve been granted by the state will help fill in some holes. They’re also being assisted by a $600,000 reduction in pension costs and a cut in health insurance costs of $500,000. In addition, $176,000 in compact funds from previous years is “in the mail,” as the old adage goes.

This is good news in the short term, but the long-term forecast could well be dimmer. Officials may find it difficult to stay with the 2 percent property tax increase limit they’ve pledged.

They’ve already demonstrated signs that making necessary cuts is incredibly challenging, and they’re just in the first budget of the five-year plan. Legislators must show that they can make the tough budgetary decisions and stay within the parameters they’ve established.

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