Sales tax revenue up in 2012 for tri-county area

Three north country counties once again saw a spike in sales tax receipts in 2012, with each surpassing budget projections.

“It’s substantial,” Lewis County Legislature Chairman Michael A. Tabolt, R-Croghan, said after learning that his county had broken the $10 million mark for the first time. “That’s encouraging news.”

Sales tax revenue for the three counties in 2012:

  • Jefferson County, with a 3.75 percent sales tax rate, received $72.54 million, up 5.25 percent from $68.92 million in 2011.
  • Lewis County, with a 3.75 percent sales tax rate, received $10.05 million, up 2.44 percent from $9.81 million in 2011.
  • St. Lawrence County, with a 3 percent sales tax rate, received $41.96 million, up 1.81 percent from $41.21 million in 2011.

Municipalities in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties also saw a benefit from the increased collections, as those counties distribute a percentage of sales tax receipts to their cities, towns and villages. Lewis County retains all its receipts for county government operations.

Despite a slight drop in fourth-quarter receipts, stemming from payments to the counties between September and December, strong numbers earlier in the year allowed Jefferson County to easily exceed its budgeted amount.

That county will retain $34.1 million from 2012 proceeds for its own operation, but budgeted for only $33 million.

That money either will be used to cover expense overruns, or, if everything goes according to plan, offset property tax increases, according to Jefferson County Legislator Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, the Finance Committee chairman.

The board voted in November to halve a proposed 4.4 percent property tax hike for 2013 to 2.2 percent by increasing the proposed sales tax revenue to $34.25 million.

Mr. Gray said that, on average, sales tax revenue has increased annually by roughly 3 percent over the last 10 years. A 3 percent hike next year would result in more than $1 million in extra revenue, while only an extra $157,347 would be needed to make budget.

Lewis County also finished the year at more than $1 million over budget, having anticipated only $9 million in receipts.

The unbudgeted revenue either will cover unexpected costs or roll into the county’s fund balance.

With a few costly projects under consideration and state mandates continuing to increase fixed costs, county leaders should not be seeking new ways to spend the excess funding, Mr. Tabolt said.

“I would urge that we be very conservative with it,” he said.

While he is hopeful that the increase in sales tax receipts means an improvement in the economy, Mr. Tabolt said rising costs for gasoline and other taxable items also may have contributed.

Lewis County leaders bumped projected receipts up to $9.5 million in the 2013 budget after seeing strong numbers through the first three quarters of 2012.

St. Lawrence County exceeded the amount it budgeted for overall sales tax receipts — $41.2 million — by more than $750,000.

However, Finance Committee Chairman Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, said the final numbers still fell a bit short of the $42.1 million he had been hoping for.

“I’m disappointed the total is not up more,” Mr. Morrill said. “But it didn’t go down.”

Mr. Morrill, the chief financial officer at the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority, said he based his expectations on increased traffic crossing the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge.

“That’s an indicator for me,” he said.

St. Lawrence County again budgeted $41.2 million in 2013.

“I’m comfortable with it,” Mr. Morrill said. “I think we budgeted conservatively, but wisely.”

St. Lawrence County receipts were up $317,524, or 3.06 percent in the fourth quarter, a period when many are purchasing more than usual because of Christmas.

-Steve Virkler, Daniel Flatley & Martha Ellen, Watertown Daily Times staff writers