St. Lawrence County officials are responding to a state senator's suggestions for how they can get permission to increase the county's sales tax rate.
Sen. Joe Griffo announced Thursday that he would support a sales tax increase for St. Lawrence County, if the town, villages and people of the county agreed.
He also suggested the county undergo a comprehensive audit and create a fiscal advisory committee that would do an independent review of the county budget. That committee would be made up of professionals from the private sector.
County officials countered in a written statement, saying St. Lawrence is one of only five counties that still charges a local sales tax of 3 percent on top of the state's 4 percent.
Increasing it by 1 percent, they say, will put the county on an equal footing with most of the rest of the counties.
Officials say the county "has put its financial house in order" and has opened its books to the senate's finance committee, undergone a two-month audit with the state comptroller’s office, and asked the comptroller’s office for recommendations.
We are pleased to see that Senator Griffo has softened his stance against raising the sales tax for St. Lawrence County. This increase, if approved, will allow the county to reduce the property tax for county residents by 14.3 percent in 2014 -- the same amount that it was increased this year. We will remain under the governor’s property tax cap -- the amount devised by the Governor’s staff to account for normal inflationary costs -- for the next four years.
The Board of Legislators, working with the county’s budget team, has developed a five-year plan that stabilizes the county’s finances and allows for repairs to critical infrastructure -- such as replacement of leaking roofs as well as replacing trucks with an excess of 200,000 miles.
Additionally, the plan calls for the county to build its fund balance from the current balance of $4 million (2 percent of budget) to $10 million in the next five years, still substantially below the comptroller’s recommendation of approximately 17 percent of budget ($32 million). However, this will help reduce the need to borrow annually for cash flow.
We are hopeful that our state representatives will approve Home Rule legislation for sales tax, which will finally provide St. Lawrence County the same tools as 57 other counties in the state. St. Lawrence is one of only five counties that remains at a 3 percent local sales tax while most are at 4 percent. The extra 1 percent equals approximately $14 million per year and will alleviate the need for excessive property tax increases.
While St. Lawrence County has trimmed its budget by over $13 million over the past four years, including a reduction of 150 positions or 15 percent of our workforce, we remain unable to meet the growing costs of state mandates without the 1 percent sales increase.
In the past four years, the county has cut valuable services to county residents including elimination of:
- Certified Home Health Agency, which provided homecare for residents in following hospitalization and those who are in need of long term in-home care
- Cancer Services Program, which provided mammograms and screenings for those who do not have insurance or cannot afford them
- MOMS Program for pregnant mothers
- Physically Handicapped Children’s Program
- Dental Sealant Program
- Electronic home monitoring for inmates
- Rural Bus System;
- Economic Development Department;
- Partner Agency Funding to 11 organizations
Additionally, the county has reduced:
- Services in the Senior Nutrition Program
- Services for the Senior in-home Assistance Program
- Home Repair Program for the Elderly
- Contract agency funding by 10 percent
The Board of Legislators believes it has put its financial house in order. We have opened the books to the senate Finance Committee as requested by Senator Patty Ritchie, undergone a two-month audit with the comptroller’s office, and sought the assistance of the comptroller’s staff in recommendations to continue to stabilize the finance of the county.
We, now, turn to our state representatives to provide the county with parity and equal treatment by giving us the same tools as almost all other counties in the state through authorizing the Home Rule legislative approval to increase the sales tax to 4 percent.
Tuesday, February 9, 2016, Watertown, NY
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