DAVID SKOLNICK \ Politics Mahoning County gambles with sales tax



There is no doubt that Mahoning County needs to continue collecting sales tax money in order to operate.
It's also equally obvious that county officials cannot make any long-term plans without knowing there is a steady source of income from the two 0.5 percent sales taxes coming into their coffers.
Without the certainty of that money, the county will not only struggle, but be forced to make massive layoffs and significantly reduce services.
The state auditor's office crunched the numbers at the request of the county commissioners, and determined that without the sales tax the county would face a $12.6 million deficit next year if the sales tax is rejected. That would put the county on fiscal watch.
By the way, this 0.5 percent sales tax brings in about $12.5 million to $13 million annually, which would take care of the deficit.
Even if the sales tax passes in November, the auditor's office said the county faces a $15.3 million projected deficit by 2008. County officials four years from now can't say they weren't given proper warning about the county's financial condition.
The decision by the county commissioners to seek a 0.5 percent continuous -- in English, that means permanent, forever, never going away -- sales tax instead of taking the traditional route of seeking the renewal of the sales tax is a bold one.
It's also a decision that appears to be a mistake.
Logic dictates that a permanent 0.5 percent sales tax doesn't have a chance in November.
Residents rejected a proposal in March to renew the tax for five years in a vote that wasn't terribly close. Why in the world would they support a plan to make the tax a permanent one?
Huge gamble
I can understand the concerns about the county's fiscal future by commissioners and other elected officials. But this is a huge gamble.
The payoff, if you succeed, is tremendous. While the reward is great, the risk is greater.
People vote against the sales tax for a variety of reasons.
Some just don't like to pay taxes. Some don't trust government to wisely spend their tax dollars. Others don't have confidence in county officials based on a number of controversial issues that have popped up over the years. Others are angry that some former county officeholders are in prison on corruption charges. Others do the math on the ballot voting yes for some taxes and no for others based on how much they can afford.
The credibility of county officials can't be high with voters based on the rejection of two sales tax renewals, in March and in May 2002.
The commissioners should have played it safe and just sought a five-year renewal. After passing a few five-year renewals in a row, commissioners should then consider seeking a permanent one.
If the permanent tax is defeated in November, the next opportunity to put it back in front of voters is February 2005.
Special elections cost about $500 per precinct. With 312 precincts, it would cost the county about $156,000 just to put the tax on the February ballot. That doesn't include the money the county would lose should the levy fail in November.
Wrong before
As a disclaimer, I've incorrectly guessed the outcome of the last three Mahoning County sales tax renewals.
I thought it was a slam-dunk victory in the May 2002 primary. It lost by less than 1 percentage point.
I expected it to fail miserably in the November 2002 general election. It received support from more than 60 percent of voters.
It never crossed my mind that voters would reject this 0.5 percent tax renewal in March until an elected county official told me flat out a few weeks before the election that it didn't stand a chance. The officeholder concluded this because no one in the county was actively campaigning for its passage. It turns out the official was correct. It lost by about 9 percentage points.
So my track record on predicting the outcome of the county sales tax vote certainly isn't stellar.

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