It may be well into 2003 before county finances return to normal, an official said.
By NORMAN LEIGH
VINDICATOR SALEM BUREAU
SALEM -- Cash-strapped Columbiana County isn't out of the fiscal woods yet, but it has moved a major step in that direction.
Efforts to thwart a three-year 0.5-percent sales tax increase imposed in June have failed.
Organizers of a referendum movement that would have barred collections of the additional tax and placed a tax-removal issue on the November ballot acknowledged that they failed to get the 3,235 signatures required to file the referendum by Friday's deadline.
That means the imposed tax stands and collections begin Sept. 1.
The county should see its first tax check in December, County Commissioner Dave Cranmer said.
The increase is expected to produce about $3 million annually in revenue for the county, which has been in fiscal crisis for months because expenses have outpaced revenues.
"I'm not relieved at all," Cranmer said after learning the referendum effort had collapsed.
"We have some serious finances to work through," he added. "The message I have for all offices is, 'Don't plan on going on a spending spree.'"
The county must remain, for now, on the same tight 2002 budget adopted earlier this year.
That budget falls short of fully funding all departments and has produced layoffs and spending freezes and has forced the county to fall behind on bills.
Many belt-tightening moves must stay in place through the end of the year, Cranmer said.
He noted that the referendum's failure doesn't affect lawsuits filed by common pleas court judges and the county veterans service agency seeking nearly $600,000 in additional funds.
Trying to return to normal
It may be well into 2003 before county finances begin returning to normal, Cranmer said.
He added, however, that county officials will try soon to find money to ensure the sheriff's department stays operational.
Sheriff Dave Smith told commissioners recently he is running out of money for payroll and could be forced to virtually shut down the department.
Organizers of the sales tax referendum effort said Friday that they were able to gather about 2,142 signatures, more than 1,000 short.
They chalked up the effort's failure to public confusion regarding the imposed tax, difficulty in finding registered voters and a belief among many that the sales tax increase is needed.
"A lot of people said, 'Give the commissioners a chance,'" said Alex Snyder of Columbiana, a spokesman for Voters for Organized Tax Elections.
The group has emphasized it isn't against a sales tax increase. Rather, it objects to an imposed increase that is not placed on the ballot.