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St. Lawrence County to replenish environmental fund

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CANTON — The St. Lawrence County Legislature plans to replenish a fund to deal with contaminated properties even though it may mean short-term financial losses.

The fund covers costs associated with contamination cleanup, which allows properties to be sold but cuts down on the money the county recoups. It is fed with proceeds from the county’s annual sale of tax-deliquent property.

The environmental remediation reserve account was started in 2007 as a way to have money to help pay for county costs associated with cleaning up blighted properties the county takes through tax foreclosure so they can be sold and redeveloped. The fund since has been used to aid cleanup at the former Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. site, General Motors, and other contaminated parcels.

“I think it’s critically important we add money to this,” Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, said. “We’ve got parcels back on the tax roll we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

The fund, which had dropped at the end of 2013 to $41,611, will receive an infusion of $27,931 from proceeds from the last sale of tax-acquired properties. Other revenue from the sale was already budgeted by the county. The sale was a net loss of nearly $46,000 for the county — based on back taxes it had paid to schools and municipalities.

“In a typical year, you wouldn’t see those kind of losses,” Treasurer Kevin M. Felt said.

Last year’s sale included several properties once contaminated that were cleaned up by the state and another parcel — the former Alaskan Oil Station on Route 68 near Ogdensburg — that tests showed was free of contamination.

The state spent more than $3 million to clean up contamination of properties in Stockholm, Clifton, DePeyster and Parishville, which represented a total of $56,000 in back taxes. The county, with environmental attorney Gary S. Bowitch, arranged with the state to split proceeds from the sales, which included releases from liability.

The county usually makes money on the sale, recouping its payouts to municipalities for back taxes, but last year’s loss got some legislators talking about adjusting the system.

“If our losses are more than our revenue, we’ve got to be doing something wrong,” Legislator Donald A. Peck, D-Gouverneur, said.

Mr. Peck suggested the county cap the money it gives to municipalities if the property behind on taxes is assessed too high.

The county is already working on a policy for legislators to review soon, Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

She wants to ensure the county is not hit with costs not of its making, such as the painting by the village of Massena of the former Sunrise Mall, where the assessment had remained the same as when it was occupied. After the county balked at paying the bill, the paint job cost was placed on the property’s water bill.

“We don’t want those kind of things sneaking in,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

County legislators also might address whether property owners should be able to redeem their tax-delinquent property up to a day before the sale.

“We think there’s a better way to do it,” she said.

Whether the county will change the way it handles payments for delinquent taxes to schools and municipalities remains uncertain.

The current policy was enacted in 1977 as a clean way of handling foreclosures and sales, especially if some taxes have been paid while others are outstanding.

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