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Ogdensburg councilman’s idea to charge fire and police fees falls flat

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A city councilman’s suggestion to create a special “fire and police” fee to be levied against tax-exempt entities as a way to generate revenue for city coffers has been shot down after the city comptroller determined such a special tax would be illegal in the state’s eyes.

Councilman Wayne A. Ashley raised the question earlier this month regarding whether the city could charge a special fire and police fee to churches, state institutions and other nonprofit organizations exempt from paying real property taxes.

Mr. Ashley floated the idea as a way to generate additional funds for city coffers because approximately 70 percent of the property in Ogdensburg is exempt from paying taxes. He suggested the lopsided ratio does not bode well for homeowners and private businesses forced to shoulder the brunt of the city’s finances.

On Tuesday, City Comptroller Phillip A. Cosmo said he has researched the suggestion and found out that it is not within the city’s legal purview to create such a fee.

“I have looked into this and checked with my contact at the New York State Conference of Mayors (NYCOM), and we are not allowed to do so,” Mr. Cosmo said in an email. “We cannot enact a local law to set up a special district to tax or levy a fee against tax exempt properties. While his statement is correct that it would help shore up our coffers, it is not something we can do by law.”

Mr. Ashley said he is disappointed by the findings, especially because he believes the city is at a financial tipping point where it soon will be unable to raise enough tax revenue to operate efficiently. He said there may be little choice but to either pare the city workforce or reduce services.

“I think we are at the point where we will have to cut services or personnel,” Mr. Ashley said. “I think this budget will be a tough budget year.”

Mr. Ashley said he does not advocate firing city workers, but instead said the City Council may have to look at eliminating positions through attrition. He also stands by his belief that tax-exempt entities should do more to pay for the cost of government.

“I’m a little disappointed. I think it’s only fair that these non-tax properties kick in something,” he said.

City Manager John M. Pinkerton said he understand’s Mr. Ashley’s concerns about the large amount of tax-exempt property in Ogdensburg, but disagrees with his assessment that reducing staff and services is the right remedy. Instead, Mr. Pinkerton advocates continuing on a path already outlined by officials that calls for expanding the tax base through entrepreneurship and finding cheaper ways to provide the current level of services to residents.

“We need to have existing businesses do well like, ACCO, Defelsko, Ansen, etc., and we need to get some of the nontax properties on the tax role such as the unused property at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center,” Mr. Pinkerton said. “We need to continue cleaning up the city’s waterfront and get that land developed, and we need to put in place a strategy to handle abandoned, vacant and deteriorating property in the city.”

Dovetailing with a strategy for encouraging development, Mr. Pinkerton said the city can reduce its costs by continuing to explore the use of solar power and more efficient LED lighting systems.

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