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Franklin Co. sales tax revenues ahead of last year

MALONE — Despite dire predictions about sales tax revenues from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Franklin County has so far seen an increase in the monies it receives from the tax, county Treasurer Fran Perry told the county Legislature on Thursday.

The county took in more than $7.7 million in sales tax in the third quarter of the year, an increase of roughly $600,000 from the prior year, Perry said. For the year to date, the county has received roughly $19.6 million, about $950,000 more than last year at this time, Perry said.

The growth in sales tax receipts was bolstered by a roughly $600,000 windfall that came in as a result of a state audit of sales tax distributions that found Franklin County had received less than it was due, Perry noted. But even subtracting the windfall, the county is doing better than it did last year, she said.

The state Department of Taxation and Finance administers the state and local sales taxes, according to a publication from the state comptroller’s office. The state tax commissioner certifies the amounts that should be distributed to local governments, and those amounts are then paid to the local governments by the comptroller.

Sales tax receipts had been lagging behind last year early in the year, but rebounded significantly even as the state imposed restrictions — including closing many businesses — in an effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. All nonessential businesses were closed March 20 when Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his New York on Pause order. A phased reopening began in mid May, but some businesses have still not been given the go-ahead to reopen.

Several legislators had theories as to why the sales tax receipts had risen.

Legislator Paul Maroun, R-Tupper Lake, said he has seen a sizeable increase in the number of delivery trucks since the shutdown orders were issued, an indication that many people were continuing to shop — just online. And legislature Chairman Don Dabiew, D-Bombay, said he believed many people in the area began shopping locally rather than traveling to visit stores in other communities where they might be more likely to catch the virus.

While Franklin County’s sales tax revenues grew despite the pandemic, occupancy tax receipts have dropped — although not as significantly as county officials had feared.

The county took in about $253,000 in occupancy tax — a 5% levy on short-term rental charges also known as a bed tax — in the third quarter of the year. That’s a little more than 1%, or about $3,000, less than last year, Perry said. For the year to date, bed tax receipts have totaled $374,000, about $70,000 less than last year, she said.

“That’s pretty good for having been shut down,” said Legislator Lindy Ellis, D-Saranac Lake.

Perry noted that the number of property owners who have registered to pay the tax has increased by more than 50 this year, with at least five more set to register in the near future. However, five properties that have registered to collect the tax have not filed any receipts this year, and the county will begin pursuing enforcement action against them, she said.

Perry did not identify the properties, saying she is prevented by confidentiality provisions in the county law authorizing the tax, but she did say, “I believe they could be quite substantial.”

The money collected through the bed tax is dedicated to tourism promotion. That figure was initially projected to be at least $473,000, but at the beginning of the pandemic locally, county officials suspended the promotions contract with the Local Development Corporation because of fears the virus would make it impossible to reach that total. An amended agreement, with a smaller minimum payment, was reinstated last month.

Perry also delivered one other piece of good financial news to legislators on Thursday.

An amnesty on delinquent property taxes that waived interest on the overdue bills brought in a little more than $3 million from 645 properties, Perry said. The program not only brought in more money than county officials had predicted; it allowed taxpayers to catch up on their outstanding bills and avoid the possibility of foreclosure on their properties — keeping them on the county tax rolls, she said.

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