Mahoning County will end this year in the black, but it will be in the red next year.
By BOB JACKSON and IAN HILL
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS
YOUNGSTOWN -- Joseph Caruso will mail a letter today that he wanted to throw away.
It's a letter from Mahoning County commissioners informing the Ohio auditor of the county's financial situation, worsened Tuesday by voter defeat of a 0.5 percent sales tax renewal.
According to complete but unofficial results from the board of elections, the tax, which expires at midnight Dec. 31, was defeated by about 1,700 votes. With it will go about $14 million a year in revenue, which accounts for about 26 percent of the county's overall general fund revenue.
County Auditor George Tablack said the county should end this year in the black, but it will see a shortfall of at least $14 million by the end of next year. Based on that outlook, the state may place the county in fiscal watch and could eventually take over the county's finances.
Caruso, assistant county administrator, said he had the letter ready to go, just in case the sales tax was defeated.
Tablack and Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock said commissioners must act soon to start making massive budget cuts. They will work with newly elected commissioners John McNally and Anthony Traficanti. Sherlock and Commissioner Ed Reese did not seek re-election.
Reese and Sherlock said there is no doubt that the county needs the revenue, but said they will not vote to impose the tax before they leave office in December.
"The voters have spoken on this issue twice," Sherlock said. "For us to just disregard that and impose the tax would be arrogant, and I won't do that."
It's the second time this year county voters were asked to consider the tax; a proposed five-year renewal was rejected in March.
In the March primary, nearly 63,500 people voted on the tax, with some 55 percent of those votes going against the tax. That total was nearly doubled Tuesday, with an unofficial total of 126,453 votes cast on the sales tax issue, 50.67 percent voting against the tax.
Mahoning County has two 0.5 percent taxes on the books. Besides the one that expires Dec. 31, there is another that expires in December 2007.
The tax was heavily promoted this time by county labor and business leaders who said its continuance is vital to the county's economic growth. They hammered away with a message that the tax already is on the books so there would not be an increase in taxes.
Opponents countered that it should have been billed as a new tax, because it was proposed as a continuing tax instead of for five years, and because a percentage of its revenue is no longer set aside for community development projects.
In other issues on the ballot, it would be an understatement to say that school officials in several Mahoning County districts were pleased with the results of Tuesday's election.
"I'm delighted," said Youngstown schools treasurer Carolyn Funk. Boardman Superintendent Frank Lazzeri added, "I'm elated."
The results showed that voters approved six of the eight school tax issues on the Mahoning County ballot.
Those successful issues were:
* A 0.5-mill 23-year bond issue that will allow the Youngstown school district to borrow $4 million for its schools construction project.
* A 1.7-mill 3-year renewal levy that will raise $1.4 million annually for general expenses in Boardman.
* A 1-mill 5-year additional/renewal permanent improvements levy that will raise $429,358 annually in Canfield.
* A 5.9-mill 5-year additional levy that will raise $793,000 annually for South Range schools.
* A 5-year renewal income tax that will raise $1,243,000 annually for Springfield schools.
* A 5.6-mill 5-year additional levy that will raise $425,000 annually for Western Reserve schools.
Funk said approval of the bond issue for the Youngstown schools will allow officials to move ahead with school construction plans, while Lazzeri said approval of the Boardman levy ensures that his district won't have to make cuts.
Lazzeri added that his district most likely will be asking voters to renew other levies next year.
When asked about the approval of the levy in his district, Western Reserve Superintendent Charles Swindler said he felt "just relief." He noted that Tuesday was the third time the issue had been on the ballot.
Swindler added that officials in his district had made cuts to save money and that teachers have agreed to a contract that does not give them any raises in addition to state-mandated raises for level of education and seniority through next school year.
If the levy had failed, the district most likely would have been forced to make additional cuts that would have affected the quality of education provided to pupils, he said.
The two levies that failed Tuesday were the 3.9-mill 5-year additional levy that would have raised $2.1 million annually for Austintown schools and the 6.6-mill 5-year additional levy that would have raised $300,000 annually for Sebring schools.
Michael Creatore and Brad Gessner, Austintown school board members, exchanged barbs after learning their levy had failed Tuesday night. Creatore said he voted against the levy because the school board has mismanaged district money over the past several years.
He said he will present evidence of that mismanagement at the next board meeting.
Gessner responded that Creatore "should be ashamed of himself" for voting against the levy.
"If he votes against the levy, why doesn't he move out of the township," Gessner said angrily. He said he believes Creatore has done little to improve the district during his time on the board, and he criticized Creatore for discussing district issues with the press and not his fellow board members.
Gessner said the district needs revenue from the levy because the state has not addressed problems with its school funding system.
When told of Gessner's comments, Creatore said, "As far as I'm concerned, [Gessner] can go to hell before I'll move out of the township." He noted that 11,000 other residents also voted against the levy.