By JIMMY LAWTON
CANTON -- In response to a state audit that faulted the county for its “dangerously low” fund balance, legislators have submitted a plan they believe could help stabilize property taxes and grow reserve funds.
The corrective action plan, which was required by the state comptrollers office, was approved Monday, according to St. Lawrence County Legislative Chairman Jonathan Putney.
He said the plan includes many of the aspects of the county’s recently developed five-year plan that calls for increased budget scrutiny and better planning than legislators and department heads have seen in the past.
The plan relies strongly on the passage of 1 percent increase in the county’s sales tax.
The home rule legislation required for the increase was approved by Senate and Assembly members, but has not been signed into law by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.
If approved, revenues from the sales tax increase would be used to reduce property taxes in 2014 by 14 percent, to offset the recent increase in the 2013 tax levy.
The remainder would be used to grow the fund balance.
St. Lawrence County Legislator and Financial Committee Chair Fred Morrill said speedy approval from the governor would allow the county to collect about $1 million within the 2013 budget year. According to the corrective action plan, that money would be added to the fund balance.
By 2015 the county hopes to raise its fund balance $6.5 million to at least $8.9 million. Morrill said the county would like to retain a balance of about $12 million at the end of the five-year cycle.
Morrill said establishing a healthy fund balance would eventually save the county more than $260,000 in annual interest payments.
He said the county currently has to borrow money to pay bills due to slow payments from state reimbursements and a depleted fund balance.
While the county expects to bring in new revenues from the increased sales tax, Putney said the plan also calls for a closer scrutiny of department budgets.
He said department heads will be expected to stay with the tax cap limits in order to ensure the county can do the same.
Morrill said this may be difficult for some departments, but added that the county has established a capital reserve fund, which will allow for both planned expenditures and emergency purchases.
Putney said the county’s five-year plan will be expanded every year to ensure the board is always looking five years ahead.