Business and labor leaders pushed for an imposed, permanent sales tax.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- If Mahoning County commissioners follow the urging of local business and labor leaders and impose a permanent sales tax next week, opponents say they'll see that the measure ends up on a ballot.
"We did it before, and we will surely do it again," said Gary Brant of Austintown. He's a member of the Accountability Tax Force, a self-proclaimed government watchdog group.
But the business and labor leaders vowed to back commissioners if that happens.
"We will fight any referendum attempt," said Ralph Zerbonia of Poland, a member of the board of directors of Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber.
Commissioners Ed Reese, David Ludt and Vicki Allen Sherlock found themselves caught in the middle but said they'll decide by next Thursday what to do about the sales tax. That's the deadline for placing issues on the ballot for the Nov. 5 general election.
Commissioners had planned to seek renewal of a 0.5-percent county sales tax in November. The tax, which has been on the books for five years, expires in December. Commissioners intended to seek another five-year term.
Urged by leaders
But some 40 business and labor leaders showed up at the commissioners' meeting Thursday, urging them to instead impose the tax permanently rather than trying again for renewal. Voters rejected a renewal effort in May.
The county has another 0.5-percent sales tax that expires in 2004.
Tom Humphries, chamber president and CEO, said the county badly needs a steady revenue stream for economic development projects. Without it, the county's economy will backslide into oblivion, he said.
Humphries said it's especially important in light of General Motors' announcement this week that its new small car will be produced at the Lordstown plant.
Mahoning is the only large, urban county that has a voted-on sales tax, Humphries said. The others, including Cuyahoga, Summit, Hamilton, Montgomery, Lucas, Franklin and Trumbull, have imposed permanent taxes.
Constantly having to campaign for passage of the taxes is a "disruptive cycle," Humphries said. He and others who spoke urged commissioners to "be brave" and impose the tax.
But Andrew Hamady of Poland said commissioners should be ashamed if they impose the tax and deny voters a say.
"I've never seen such a distinguished group of leaders so exuberant over imposing a tax," Hamady said.
Commissioners said they want to gather input from the public before deciding what to do. They all said it's a tough call.
"I've always felt that people should have the right to vote on taxes," Sherlock said. "But this is an opportunity to take advantage of a groundswell of support from the business and labor communities."
Ludt, who is up for re-election in November, said he's concerned about voter backlash at the polls if he votes to impose the tax, which he'd previously said he would not do.
Reese would not say how he'll vote, but said he knows either decision will come with criticism.
Even if commissioners impose the tax, Sherlock said she expects it to come to a vote eventually through the ATF's initiative drive.
Brant said he thinks the group would have no problem gathering the 12,400 signatures it would need to get the measure before voters.