Fact check: Stefanik’s ‘Clear Choice’ ad exaggerates tax claims

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (Photo provided — Amanda Morrison, Watertown Daily Times)

An Elise Stefanik TV ad that the campaign calls “Clear Choice” leads with the assertion that “Tedra Cobb voted to raise taxes 20 times. Taxing everything from candy to water to gas.”

Tedra Cobb, a Democrat, is running against Republican incumbent Stefanik for the congressional seat in New York’s 21st District.

The Stefanik campaign sent out a press release about the ad that includes a link to a list of sources, most of them resolutions from the St. Lawrence County Legislature, where Cobb served for eight years, from 2002 to 2010.

The resolutions are a mixed bag. Four are the Legislature’s annual resolutions to adopt the county budget, from 2008 through 2011. In each of those four years, Cobb voted for the budget, and in each year the tax levy increased.

In just two of the years, however, the estimated tax rate increased, while it decreased in 2008 and stayed the same in 2010.

Whether an individual property owner’s taxes would have increased in any one of those years would have also depended on a property’s assessment and on the total assessed valuation in the county.

Most people think of a tax increase as an increase in the tax rate, because that is most likely to lead to a bigger tax bill. An individual’s tax bill might go higher in a year when the tax levy increases, but it might not.

Of the rest of the claims made by the Stefanik campaign, only three qualify as clear-cut votes to increase taxes. Two out of three are increases in fees, and the third is an expansion of the county’s bed tax to include hotels or motels with fewer than six rental units.

The two fees are a 2008 increase in the fees to record various documents with the county clerk’s office and a 2003 increase in county garbage tip fees.

The 14 other assertions of tax increase votes range from questionable to wrong.

One from 2010, for example, is a revision to the budget, noting an increase in sales tax collection for the year. The sales tax rate was not increased — the county was collecting more sales tax revenue than budgeted.

Another, from 2007, revises the amount of money the county will have to raise through property taxes. It revises the amount downward.

One from 2005 involves a change in the true value tax rate between the tentative and the final budgets. That rate is also revised downward.

A 2010 vote is cited as a vote against a decrease in the true value tax rate, but Cobb had already supported revising that rate downward. She and a majority of legislators opposed a second resolution to take more money from surplus to revise the rate downward even more.

Three of the resolutions involve the same thing — a request from the St. Lawrence County board to the state for permission to raise the sales tax from 3 to 4 percent if and when the board deemed it necessary.

These were not resolutions to raise the sales tax but did prepare the way for a sales tax increase of 1 percent, if the board decided at some point to do that.

Those votes came in 2004. Cobb left the board in 2010. In 2013, the board voted to increase the local sales tax from 3 to 4 percent.

In 2009 and 2010, in an action similar to the sales tax vote, the board voted unanimously to ask the state for permission to pass a mortgage tax. At some later point, legislators voted for a mortgage tax, which is now 0.75 percent. That is among the lowest county mortgage taxes in the state. Warren County’s is 1.25 percent, and Washington County’s is 1 percent.

Also on the list is a 2004 unanimous vote of the board, authorizing the addition of “omitted taxes” to the 2004 tax roll. This is one of those resolutions that gets passed every year as necessary business and is not a tax increase.

So, out of 21 claims by the Stefanik campaign of Cobb votes to increase taxes, seven can be defended as actual votes to increase taxes. Two more — the requests to the state for permission to increase the sales tax and the mortgage tax — are precursors to tax increases.

The ad’s accusation that Cobb voted to raise taxes on everything from “candy to water to gasoline” is a reference to sales tax.

The Stefanik campaign declined to expand on or clarify any of its claims.

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