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Petition drives planned to block new sales taxes



Published: Wed, April 13, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



A lawsuit aiming to stop emergency tax collection also has been filed.

WARREN -- Two petition drives against the two new quarter-percent Trumbull County sales taxes are under way in conjunction with a lawsuit aiming to stop emergency tax collection for criminal justice services.

Atty. Michael Rossi of Warren said the separate referendum and repeal petitions are being finished at his office. Also, Rossi filed suit Tuesday in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court on behalf of tax opponent Thaddeus Price of Howland.

A judgment is sought declaring that the county commissioners' emergency resolution for a criminal justice services tax is invalid. A preliminary injunction is sought from Judge Peter Kontos to stop its collection in July.

The county prosecutor's office likely will file to dismiss that action in coming days, after commissioners have time to gauge their response, said Jason Earnhart, assistant prosecutor.

Price, 58, said he's a retired truck driver who enjoys politics. In the past, he has said the commissioners refuse to demand that county workers pay for half of their health care, and that the workers refuse to accept wage and benefit concessions.

"Our argument is, by commissioners imposing the sales tax, they've denied voters the opportunity to vote on the issue," Price said.

Proposed taxes

Commissioners imposed two quarter-percent taxes a week ago.

One tax is an emergency measure for criminal justice services such as the sheriff, prosecutor and coroner; the second is a nonemergency measure for general fund operations such as the auditor, treasurer and recorder.

The money could ease the county's financial problems at year's end; the full benefit will come in 2006 and thereafter, officials said.

Price's court action against the commissioners, board of elections, county auditor and state tax commissioner maintains the emergency tax resolution is illegal because it doesn't state directly, for example, that sheriff's road patrols would be restored or that the jail wouldn't be emptied.

"Our argument is, they have to be more specific," Price said.

The tax resolution approved April 6, however, does say the additional revenue is needed for "the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety in Trumbull County," and that such a tax is "the only source of additional revenue available to the county."

Commissioner Paul Heltzel is a lawyer, but he declined to make any legal judgment on the emergency tax resolution, which was approved by the prosecutor's office. He said if someone does believe there's a defect, that person is free to ask a court to make a determination.

There is no such legal argument regarding specific use of revenue against the nonemergency tax, Price noted. "We just have to take it on" with the petition drive, he said.

The petitions will be printed and distributed to some 20 circulators. They plan to begin Friday gathering names, and registering voters as necessary. They will be at the Howland Township gazebo across from Giant Eagle on East Market Street; and B & amp;B Automotive, 717 W. Market St., across from the Hot Dog Shoppe in Warren, Price said.

Opposition

The county already collects a half-percent sales tax; the two new taxes would make the county's total sales tax rate 1 percent. Voters trounced a measure for continuing an additional half-percent sales tax for county operations in 2003.

Price said, "43,000 people told these guys 'no' and then they went and did it again."

The tax opponents have to get at least 7,170 valid signatures to place the tax referendums on the November ballot. But they have to act in two different ways, because one tax is an emergency and the other is not:

UThey have until May 6 to get the tax for general county use before the voters as a referendum. The nonemergency measure won't take effect July 1, if opponents can meet this statutory filing deadline with the county auditor's office.

UThey have until Aug. 25 to get the emergency tax on the November ballot. This would be a repeal effort; those tax collections will still begin July 1 if Price's court action fails. The signatures would be filed with the county board of elections.

Heltzel said Price's petitions and legal action don't come as a surprise because Price had spoken against the sales tax during public hearings.

The taxes are on retail sales. Each quarter-percent tax would generate about $400,000 per month, or about $4.8 million, if collections remain steady. Their combined take could be as much as $9.6 million.




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