WARREN -- Trumbull County commissioners have amended their resolution for a criminal justice services sales tax, specifically saying how the money would be used -- mostly for the sheriff and jail.
The move Wednesday was in response to a lawsuit filed against the county last week by Thaddeus Price of Howland, who said the tax would be illegal because commissioners hadn't spelled out specific uses for the dollars.
Price and his lawyer, Michael Rossi of Warren, will confer on what impact Wednesday's change has on the court action and also the ongoing petition drive against the same tax. A higher court may wind up deciding the situation, Rossi said.
"No. 1, I'm not sure they can just change the resolution without going through the process again and having the two public meetings again," he said. "What they did today may not be legally effective."
The resolution change was hashed out over several days between the prosecutor and commissioners offices.
The tax resolution that commissioners had approved April 6 had not yet been sent to the state tax commissioner's office in Columbus. It must be there by April 25.
The time frame allowed commissioners a window of opportunity to make the resolution change and likely thwart Price's request for a preliminary injunction against the tax, said James Misocky, assistant prosecutor. "We believe that this makes that moot," he said.
Price responded that he still brought about the change he had sought.
Price's court action against commissioners, board of elections, county auditor and state tax commissioner had maintained the emergency tax resolution was illegal because it lacked specifics.
The resolution now states "further reasons for the passage" but retains language saying the tax is "the only source of additional revenues" immediately available to the county. It would:
UProvide revenue for the jail, inadequately funded for 2005 and facing the possibility of closing some or all floors.
UAvoid the additional expense of the county housing prisoners in other counties' jails or possibly releasing criminals.
UProvide for restoration of county sheriff's road patrols at some point.
UEnsure the courts' function and safety.
UAllow the coroner's office to continue performing its duties.
Commissioners said they believed the original resolution as reviewed by the County Commissioners Association of Ohio was fine, but voted 3-0 for the change. "In an effort to err on the side of caution, there's a lot of money at stake here. ... We do desperately need the money," Misocky said.
Rossi's initial reaction to the vote was, "Oh, come on!" He said there's not a lot of legal research on such tax issues and that he would have to do some checking.
Commissioners have imposed two quarter-percent taxes. One is the 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.
Price also is behind the separate referendum and repeal petitions. The tax opponents have to get at least 7,170 valid signatures per petition to place the tax referendums on the November ballot.
Petition in danger
Rossi said he believes that adding a few paragraphs of new language to the criminal justice services tax resolution will mean Price has to start one of his petition drives all over again. He's been gathering signatures since Friday.
"Yes, it's a separate resolution and it calls for a separate process, and a separate petition," Rossi said. "That resolution is a part of the petition; it's stapled right to it."
Price also said it's his gut feeling the petition will have to be changed.
It's possible there could now be three petition drives: the original resolution, the amended resolution and the resolution for the nonemergency tax. That's just in case either of the criminal justice resolutions is found to be void, Rossi speculated.
The money from both taxes "for a continuing period" could ease the county's financial problems at year's end; the full benefit will come in 2006 and thereafter, county officials said. The county already collects a half-percent sales tax; the two new taxes would make the county's total sales tax rate 1 percent.
Price and his volunteers 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.
They have until Aug. 25 to get the emergency tax on the November ballot. It would be a repeal effort; those tax collections will still begin July 1 if Price's court action now evaporates. The signatures would be filed with the county board of elections. Rossi is checking to see if a new 45-day time frame for the petitioners will begin anew as of Wednesday.