TRUMBULL COUNTY Auditor wants more information on debts

Sales tax money is used to pay off some of the debt.
WARREN -- Trumbull County government is making payments on $29.4 million worth of debt, and the county auditor wants to see a five-year capital plan from the commissioners office before it incurs any more.
"Right now, we have the ability to pay them off. But like everyone else, these people have to curtail their spending," Auditor David A. Hines said. "No more Taj Mahals built around here."
Commissioner Daniel Polivka, board chairman, agreed that it's "reasonable and imperative" that the auditor and his staff be involved in the capital-planning process.
"That's crucial for proper planning in the county," Polivka said.
As of this month, the county is obligated for $9.7 million in notes and $19.7 million in general obligation bonds.
These amounts are basically loans the county is paying to finance major projects that range from water and sewer lines to new computers for the courts. The money comes from either the county's sales tax or from assessments on property owners who benefit from a project.
Major projects
The largest of these are for the county jail construction and administration building improvements in 1997; a global positioning system for the county's mapping and real estate transfer duties; and new buildings for the 11th District Court of Appeals downtown, Farm Bureau/Ohio State University Extension quarters in Cortland and the Sanitary Engineer building in Vienna.
Also, the county has a $1.5 million note for the replacement of its 911 center equipment in Howland, damaged by a major flood July 2003. The county is making payments while insurance claims remain unresolved.
The newest addition to the county's debt is $1.2 million for buying and installing equipment and related systems for an overhauled court computer system.
The concern, Hines said, is that county commissioners can't just arbitrarily tackle such large ventures without a long-range plan.
Two years ago, the county budget commission -- the auditor, treasurer and prosecutor -- recommended a long-term capital budget for 2004-08 to go hand-in-hand with the long-term debt retirement.
That request wasn't met, and the auditor thinks it's time to ask the commissioners again with new Commissioners Polivka and Paul Heltzel on board.
"We would like to see five years, but I think that's a wish list. We'd be satisfied with three years," Hines said.
"This needs to be planned, not just constantly boom-boom-boom," agreed Adrian Biviano, chief deputy auditor.
The county is by no means at its debt limit. It can borrow up to $72.65 million. That figure is based on a percentage of the assessed valuation of all property in Trumbull County. The county, however, must show an ability to pay, and it can't borrow just to operate the county government.
The county's financial adviser is Fifth Third Securities, Columbus. Once a specific project is done, the note is sold and the county pays on the bond over a period of five to 20 years.
From the sales tax money, a portion goes toward debt retirement.
No increase
The commissioners' approval last week of two additional sales taxes will not increase the approximately $3 million now set aside annually from sales-tax funds to pay on general obligation bonds, Biviano said.
The county already is collecting a half-percent sales tax and had a $32 million general fund budget at the start of this year. A $6 million shortfall created layoffs this year for departments such as the auditor, treasurer, recorder and sheriff.
Approved last week are an emergency quarter-percent sales tax for criminal justice services, such as the prosecutor, courts, jail and sheriff, and a nonemergency quarter-percent for general operations.
Polivka said commissioners are keeping a "close watch" on how tax money is spent now and in the future. He said commissioners do have a capital plan for immediate needs.
Heltzel said after the sales-tax votes that next year could be the time for some capital improvements needed at the Wean Building, board of elections, courthouse and county garage.
Both of the additional taxes would be for a continuing period of time and together generate as much as $9.6 million, or $4.8 million each if monthly collections remain constant.
Collections would start in July unless there's a voter referendum on the nonemergency measure filed with the county auditor by May 6. The money would become available to the county in October.

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