Officials stress need to raise tax

A second public hearing on the proposed tax increase is set for next week.
& lt;a & gt;By SHERRI L. SHAULIS & lt;/a & gt;
WARREN -- Trumbull County commissioners are stressing the soft economic climate of recent years as a major need for a tax increase, but not all taxpayers are ready to wholeheartedly support the measure.
Commissioners conducted their first public hearing Wednesday night on raising the county sales tax. The second hearing will be at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 20 in the commissioners' meeting room.
Commissioner Michael J. O'Brien said a 0.5-percent increase to 1 percent would raise enough money for the county to get by with some cost cutting.
The first 45 minutes of the hearing featured O'Brien and Commissioner Joseph J. Angelo Jr. explaining to the more than 200 people in the audience -- many of them county employees -- how county finances compare to other counties, where major expenditure increases have come in the last decade and how repealing 0.25 percent of the sales tax four years ago saved residents more than $20 million.
"But now you're broke," was the reply of one audience member.
Voicing concerns
While many in attendance said they couldn't argue with the numbers, some expressed concern about the foresight of commissioners.
"They should have been better stewards of the money four years ago," said Muriel Robinson of Warren, an employee of the Office of Elderly Affairs.
"They should have known four years ago when they took the tax away that it wasn't always going to be good times."
Other audience members questioned if finances wouldn't be better had the tax been left alone four years ago and also questioned spending practices that are being investigated by the county prosecutor's office, the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification and the FBI.
Prosecutor Dennis Watkins said he understands the concerns, but stressed good county employees should not be punished for the possible wrongdoing of a few.
Meanwhile, commissioners voted during their regular meeting earlier Wednesday to request that a fiscal watch review be performed by the state auditor's office.
Commissioners said they did not know when such a review would be performed or if the county would have to pay.
Financial situation
Commissioners were told last week they have $31.1 million to spend on general fund departments this year, about $8 million less than last year, on everything from jail expenses to personnel costs at the sheriff's, auditor's and treasurer's departments.
Auditor Dave Hines said a projected $8 million budget shortfall may be enough to catapult the county into fiscal watch unless commissioners are able to balance the budget.
The state auditor's office uses several benchmarks to determine if a government belongs in fiscal watch.
One is if a county is on track to spend more money in a year than it has historically collected in 13 months.
If spending were to remain the same, Trumbull County would be headed in that direction.
Fiscal watch is considered a warning stage before fiscal emergency, when an outside oversight committee is appointed to control a local government's finances.
Several local school districts have been or are in fiscal emergency.
The state auditor's office provides special technical and support services to governments it has declared to be in fiscal watch, then bills them for the help.
O'Brien said he has been able to cut about $6.5 million and is still working on the budget.
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