St. Lawrence County Chamber supports plan to raise sales tax to lower property tax
Monday, January 7, 2013 - 6:45 am

CANTON -- The St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce is now on record as favoring a one-percent sales tax hike to reduce property taxes in the county.

The chamber board of directors has voted to support the St. Lawrence County Legislature’s five-year plan to raise the county sales tax by one percent.

“Unless we bring some revenue into this county, we’re all in trouble,” Chamber Executive Director Pat McKeown said, “and a sales tax hike is preferable to any more property tax increases.”

At its late December meeting, the chamber board discussed a proposed resolution that would put on record its support of the sales tax hike. A vote was tabled until the legislature’s release of its five-year plan for use of the increased revenue to, among other things, offset property tax increases. The Board of Legislators adopted a five-year spending plan this past Monday.

Chamber Board President Rita Ostrander noted that a sales tax increase “will be spread out among residents and non-residents alike, rather than just those who pay property taxes.”

“The sales tax is the most appropriate move to make under the circumstances,” Chamber Board member David Swanson noted, “particularly in conjunction with the (legislature’s) five-year plan to reduce spending.”

For some time the county board has wanted New York State lawmakers to authorize a one-percent increase in the county’s share of sales tax revenues, raising it from three to four percent, which would raise the total sales tax in the county from seven to eight percent. State Senator Patricia A. Ritchie (R-Heuvelton) has said she would only support the county in its bid for a higher rate if extra sales tax revenue would be used to reduce county property taxes.

By resolution, the chamber board “strongly encouraged the county to develop a balanced plan of use for the new sales tax revenues, applying those funds to reduce property taxes, strengthen its fund balance, and maintain a conservative and appropriate spending plan,” according to a statement released by the chamber.

The resolution goes on to urge the county legislature “to hold the line on spending and use all revenues to benefit both the taxpayers and programs that will ‘enhance the unique quality of life in St. Lawrence County.’”

This is the first time the chamber board has voted to support raising taxes and most members acknowledged it is a huge step, the statement said.

Despite the positive vote, however, some members of the chamber board were concerned that if the additional one percent sales tax were approved by the state legislature and signed by the governor, that the county may not stick to its five-year plan, several saying that they would be supportive “only if” the county continues to operate in good faith.

“I will not be a future supporter of the plan if it is not used to measure realities and adjust spending to meet stated goals,” said United Helpers CEO Steven E. Knight, and a member of the board.

Potsdam Paper CEO Ron Charette agreed, and in voting in favor, expressed concern about the unfunded mandates the state is pushing onto counties.

“(I’m afraid) the county will be in the same circumstance five years from now,” Charette warned. “I do not see the tax base improving to offset the additional revenue requirements.”

McKeown said the chamber board will work diligently toward eliminating unfunded mandates by New York State onto St. Lawrence County.

“All of us hate these mandates,” she said. “Albany decrees and we have to pay. Something’s not right there.”

County Administrator Karen St. Hilaire, who attended the chamber board’s December meeting, said that “St. Lawrence County is pleased to have the support of the chamber in securing the 1 percent sales tax increase. Our legislators have put together a plan that will reduce property taxes and create a balanced budget that provides the county’s citizens with the services it needs.”