By CRAIG FREILICH
You might not be aware of it -- and apparently some dealers of wood for heating fuel aren’t -- but St. Lawrence County charges sales tax on heating fuels, including wood.
New York State exempts heating fuels from their four-percent sales tax, but counties can charge sales tax, and St. Lawrence County does, along with many other counties and municipalities.
As a result, county residents are supposed to pay the new four-percent county sales tax rate that went into effect Dec. 1 on natural gas, propane, electricity, coal, fuel oil and wood used for heating. For most other items, consumers pay eight percent sales tax – with half going to the state and half to the county.
When the state began its sales tax decades ago, it allowed counties the option to also exempt heating fuels in their local share of the tax, but St. Lawrence County and about a dozen other counties opted not to.
The old St. Lawrence County Board of Supervisors adopted that policy in the mid-1960s, and there has been discussion of exempting fuels from time to time since then, most recently during the debate on increasing the county sales tax from three to four percent. But the policy has not been reversed, except for one year “about three or four years ago,” according to county Board of Legislators Finance Committee Chair Frederick Morrill, a Democrat from District 6 in DeKalb.
“I supported taking it off” completely, Morrill said. “It’s a necessity, like food, and there’s no sales tax on food.”
But with the county’s less-than-rosy balance sheet over the last few years, including lower sales tax receipts due to the slow economy, “we were in dire need of revenue. It didn’t get any traction, because of the need we had for revenue.”
Morrill estimates the heating fuel tax brings in “I think it was over half a million” a year, he said.
“We have been trying to lower property taxes, and we need the revenue – that’s how the discussion went.”
While making no predictions, Morrill said the issue could come up again in what will be a review every two years on the county’s four-percent sales tax.
That’s because when the county moved from three percent to four percent last year, the extra one percent put the county in a special category of municipalities that require renewal every two years through state “home rule” legislation on the taxing authority.
“It has to be looked at every two years,” Morrill said, “and then we have to go back and ask again” for state approval, along with all the other counties and municipalities with the higher tax. “It’s routine,” he said.
“If the state legislature came to believe we shouldn’t charge sales tax on fuels, that would be the way” to get it changed, by bills in the Senate and Assembly, Morrill said. But for the county to exempt heating fuels now, something else would have to be cut, he said.
The tax applies to firewood, too, but some small operators apparently aren’t aware of it, and one large local firewood dealer says she isn’t surprised.
“Oh yes, when we started almost 33 years ago, we didn’t know,” said Mary Jane Toomey of Toomey Brothers’ Logging near Hopkinton.
“We found out after the fact. Ignorance is not an excuse.”
At the time, they were contacted by authorities, set up the right procedures, “settled everything and went forward,” she said.
But she said she believes most small dealers “have no clue” they should be collecting and paying sales tax.
“And you wouldn’t believe how many customers don’t know,” said Toomey, whose company supplies everyone from someone who needs a few sticks over the winter for an occasional fire in the fireplace to people who heat their homes completely with wood.
As for the extra one percent that began in December, Toomey said, “It’s a hard industry. One percent makes a difference. If there was a tax break maybe we could do something else” to improve the business.
“Is the customer feeling it? Yes, everyone is.”