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Sales tax brought in $400 million in 2011; Tally marks a record high for Erie County; Canadian shoppers, car and gas sales credited

Sales tax revenue in Erie County has reached a new high.

The county collected $400.99 million in sales tax last year, according to recently released year-end figures that show sales tax receipts for 2011 increased by 4.5 percent, compared with 2010.

"This is the first time ever as a county that we broke the $400 million mark," said Lorne H. Steinhart, acting county comptroller.

County officials attribute much of that growth to strong retail sales fueled by Canadian shoppers. They have also pointed to automobile and wholesale gasoline sales as factors.

The county collected $14.23 million more in sales tax than it budgeted for in 2011.

That's one factor in an expected year-end surplus for 2011. A budget-monitoring report released last month projected that the county would end 2011 with a $26 million budgetary surplus once the year's finances are tallied.

The latest sales tax figures confirm early projections provided by the county in December, when officials said they expected to end the year with about a 4 percent increase in sales tax receipts over the previous year.

The county collected $383.7 million in sales tax 2010.

Erie County typically sees its sales tax revenue grow, and it considers the tax a primary revenue source.

That revenue source has fluctuated in recent years as the economy sputtered.

In 2009, when Erie County brought in $375.2 million in sales tax, the county saw the sales tax revenue drop by 3 percent compared with the prior year. The county took in $386.8 million in sales tax in 2008.

Wall Street credit rating agency Standard & Poor's Financial Services has warned that the county's reliance on "economically sensitive" sales tax revenues is a risk.

"While sales tax growth has historically been sufficient to offset rising costs, continued expenditure growth could pose a risk to future fiscal balance, in our opinion," an analyst for Standard & Poor's wrote in a December report on Erie County's bonds.