Impose sales tax, deputies urge
Commissioners said if they imposed the tax, voters would remove it again.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County deputy sheriffs pleaded with county commissioners Tuesday to impose a sales tax and ward off massive layoffs in their department.
But commissioners said imposing the tax now, after voters rejected it twice this year, would handcuff any future attempts to pass a tax.
They said opponents would almost certainly put the imposed tax on the ballot as a referendum, where it would probably be voted down again.
"Imposition now is not the right thing," said Commissioner Ed Reese.
About 70 deputies, most of them in uniform, attended Tuesday's meeting, the commissioners' first since voters rejected a 0.5-percent county sales tax renewal last week. It was on the ballot as a continuing measure.
Voters rejected a five-year renewal attempt in March. The tax will expire at midnight Dec. 31.
Budget cuts ahead
Because of the anticipated loss of revenue, commissioners have said massive budget cuts will be imposed next year. Sheriff Randall Wellington laid off 31 deputies Sunday and said an additional 120 will be laid off in December.
Deputies argued that there won't be enough left to safely staff the county jail, which is one of the department's required duties.
Auditor George Tablack said anticipated revenue for 2005 is about $34 million, which is about the same as 1995. He said the average daily inmate population at the jail in 1995 was 188, compared with 786 now.
Critics, such as John Paulette of Austintown, said the tax failed because voters have no confidence in county government. He said county officials issued false or conflicting information about how much the tax brings in while ignoring other sources of revenue, like interest on investments.
But Joseph Caruso, assistant county administrator, said the county's finances have been detailed in annual reports by both the county and state auditor's offices.
"No one is hiding any information about revenue that comes into the county or how it is expended," Caruso said. "The facts don't lie."
Tablack has said the tax generates about $14 million a year, which accounts for about one-fourth of the county's annual general fund revenue. A separate 0.5-percent sales tax, which brings in the same amount, expires in 2007.
Reese, who is not seeking re-election after his term expires this year, said the next board of commissioners should consider consolidating both taxes for a continuing 1-percent sales tax in the May 2005 election.
"Go for all or nothing," Reese said.
He and Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock, who also is leaving office at the end of the year, said their political foes have used the sales tax as a political tool for years to make their jobs difficult.
Now that they are leaving office and new commissioners are coming on board, the seeds of mistrust sown by their critics have taken hold with the public and will be difficult to overcome, Reese and Sherlock said.
"For years, people wanted to play politics with the sales tax," Sherlock said. "But you don't do that without damaging public trust. Now you [deputies] are paying the price for all those attacks."
Sherlock and Reese said critics have created an image over the years of county government as being filled with wasteful spending, which isn't true.
"People just keep telling us to cut the fat," Reese said. "Well, there isn't any more fat to cut."