Stefanik and company don’t know what they’re talking about

Tedra Cobb had no time to savor her resounding victory in the Democratic primary before she was attacked by the Stefanik campaign as “the out-of-touch, liberal, hyper-partisan, tax-and-spend candidate.” Next thing you know, there were attack ads calling her “Taxin’ Tedra,” alleging that she had voted 21 times to raise taxes during her eight years as St. Lawrence County legislator. The Stefanik campaign listed its “sources,” which makes fact-checking a straightforward matter.

Items 1-4: During the four years in question, the property tax rate decreased by 2.72 percent. While it is true that the budget increased every year, the total assessed value of real estate increased more rapidly, and so the tax rate went down.

Items 5-7: The same issue listed three times. No one voted to raise taxes. The county legislature asked the state legislature for authority to increase the sales tax if necessary to meet expenses in the future. Without this option as an alternative to the property tax, the burden of taxation falls almost entirely on homeowners and business owners.

Item 8: A resolution to tax not-for-profits was circulated in committee. It was in the “mark-up” stage. The resolution never made it to the floor. No vote was taken.

Item 9: During the budget review process, the estimated revenue from the sales tax was increased by 1.28 percent. The estimate was increased, not the sales tax itself. No one voted to increase taxes.

Item 10: The legislature supported the request of certain other counties to increase their sales tax by up to 4 percent. No one fancied such an increase for St. Lawrence County. No one voted to raise taxes.

Item 11: The budget resolution stated the dollar amount needed to be raised by property taxes in order to balance the budget. The Stefanik campaign misunderstood the wording.

Items 12-14: These resolutions actually decreased the “true value tax rate.” Tedra Cobb is accused of voting against a resolution that would have cut it further by taking money from surplus funds that are used to cover unforeseen expenses, such as snow removal, toward the end of the year.

Items 15-16: These resolutions asked the state legislature for authority to enact a mortgage recording tax in the future.

Item 17: This resolution did increase the fees for recording of documents in the county clerk’s office.

Item 18: Tedra Cobb is accused of “taxing omitted land.” No doubt. These are lands which have been sold by tax-exempt owners and which no longer qualify for tax-exempt status. The assessor is allowed, by law, to add these “omitted” properties to the tax rolls. Every year the county legislature reviews and approves the list. And the Stefanik campaign has a problem with this?

Item 19: This resolution increased the tipping fees, but for contaminated soil only, not for other garbage, as alleged by the Stefanik campaign. The increase of 50 cents per ton was not enough to cover increase of $2.50 per ton charged by Jefferson County when it receives the contaminated soil from St. Lawrence County.

Item 20: This resolution appears to have extended the “hotel or motel” tax to those “having less than six rental units.” The bed tax is paid by the visitor, not the property owner.

Item 21: The county legislature asked the state legislature to make the Power Authority subject to property taxes. The reasons, in my view, are quite valid: (1) The St. Lawrence Seaway Project, overseen by the Power Authority, flooded 18,000 acres, which were thus removed from the local tax rolls. (2) The Power Authority holds 8,760 acres of land, including nearly 200 miles of high-value shoreline property along St. Lawrence River tributaries, bays and islands. By contrast, for the lands of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, administered by the Department of Environmental Conservation, the state of New York pays property taxes to the towns at a rate comparable to adjacant parcels of private forest. Why should the Power Authority be tax-exempt?

These were not “hyper-partisan” issues. Items 10, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 21 passed unanimously. All legislators present, Republican and Democrat, voted in favor. The closest votes were 9-to-6 (Item 6), 9-to-5 (Item 13), and 10-to-5 (Items 7 and 14).

Unlike the United States Congress, the county legislature cannot spend more than it takes in. Its sources of revenue are primarily property taxes, and secondarily grants from the federal government, the state government and charity organizations. Local sales taxes and some user fees must be approved by the state legislature. If any of these sources of funding are diminished, or if the state or federal governments impose unfunded mandates, the county legislature must find another way to raise revenue or else cut essential services. We would be well served in Congress by someone who understands these realities, having learned them firsthand. There is no substitute for experience.

Richard Hayes Phillips lives in Canton.