Trustees brace to defend funds
The townships don't want to lose sales-tax revenue that's set aside for them.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- As Mahoning County's commissioners and two county judges get ready to slug it out in court, township trustees are waiting to see whether they'll have to jump into the fray.
They're keeping an eye on a pot of money set aside by commissioners for development projects in townships and municipalities.
The money, about $1.1 million this year, comes from a 0.5-per-cent sales tax passed by voters in 1999. There's also an additional $2.3 million or so set aside to assist the county engineer with road paving, and for funding certain nonmandated county agencies.
Judges Theresa Dellick of juvenile court and Timothy P. Maloney of probate court have filed lawsuits in the Ohio Supreme Court, seeking to force commissioners to provide them with more funding this year.
Judge Dellick requested $6.9 million but was given $4.6 million, while Judge Maloney's allocation of $750,000 was $172,000 less than he'd asked for.
Commissioners cut all departments' budgets this year because of a lack of growth in sales-tax revenue and decreases in money earned on investments.
There's been discussion that if the judges win their lawsuits, the extra money might have to come from the local development dollars. Trustees, though, say they're not about to let that happen. They've hired a lawyer, Atty. Mark Finamore, to represent their interests.
"We don't want a fight with the judges, and I don't think they want a fight with the trustees association," said Lee Kohler, a Springfield Township trustee and president of the Mahoning County Township Trustees and Clerks Association. "We're just fighting to protect our money."
The county prosecutor's office usually represents the townships in legal matters but is already representing the commissioners in this issue. Trustees chose to hire an independent lawyer just in case they end up in a legal battle against commissioners.
The cost of paying Finamore will be spread among the townships. Several villages also have signed on and will contribute, Kohler said.
County Administrator Gary Kubic said he has no problem with what the trustees have done.
"In fact, I encouraged them to do that," he said.
Commissioners have said they intend to honor their promise to distribute the sales-tax money back to local governments. They said ballot language when the measure was passed specifically said 25 percent of the revenue was to be set aside for that purpose.
"When that tax was passed, it was on paper in black and white that a percentage of the money was going back to townships and villages," Kohler said. "That's our money."
Finamore said he's not sure what sort of action he'll take in leading the townships' fight.
One option is to ask the high court for permission to intervene in the judges' lawsuit and make a claim as a third party with a legitimate stake in the outcome. Another is to ask the court for permission to file a written brief in support of the commissioners, stating the townships' position.
Finally, he could simply wait for the court to rule on the suit. If commissioners lose and attempt to use the sales tax revenue to cover the courts' demands, he would file a lawsuit to block them.
"One way or another, we intend to protect our interests," Finamore said.
Kohler said he met recently with Judge Dellick, explained the townships' position and listened to hers.
"I understand where she's coming from," he said. "But we're just fighting for what we think is ours."