MAHONING COUNTY Commissioners make final push for sales tax

The half-percent tax would bring in between $12 million and $14 million a year.
AUSTINTOWN -- Arguments for and against the proposed half-percent sales tax on Tuesday's primary ballot dominated the Mahoning County commissioners' meeting Thursday at the township hall.
Among the highlights:
UAuditor George J. Tablack pointed out that the sheriff's department, as of Thursday, was facing a $7.2 million deficit, and the risk of the department's missing payrolls was a real possibility. The fiscal crisis can be attributed to last year's defeat of the sales tax.
UThe tax received support from the Home Builders/Remodelers Association and from Lisa Oles, an Austintown Township trustee.
UCommunity activist Gary Brant of Austintown said county government still wasn't being run efficiently and still hadn't implemented many improvements suggested in a 2002 state audit. He said that until those issues are addressed, he would vote against the tax.
The commissioners had their last formal session to drum up support for the tax, which brings in between $12 million and $14 million a year. That revenue stream was cut off in December, when the tax expired. Voters twice failed to renew it last year.
New Commissioners Anthony Traficanti and John A. McNally IV and incumbent Commissioner David Ludt have been trying since January to convince county residents that the sales tax revenue is needed to keep county government afloat, keep the county jail from closing, and is necessary for the county's growth.
Sheriff's shortfall
Tablack produced the general expense fund for the sheriff's department that showed a projected $6.5 million shortfall in the department's general budget and a projected $700,000 deficit in a special jail fund that covers inmates' medical expenses.
The sheriff had requested $16 million for this year, but received just under $7.2 million.
A federal judge stopped a second round of deputy layoffs this month, so the department's salary fund will be depleted sooner than expected. Tablack already has said he expects the county to be in state fiscal emergency before the end of the year.
One of the factors leading to fiscal emergency is failure to make payroll for more than 30 days, or a period of agreed-upon extension that cannot last more than 90 days from the original time for payment.
Tablack said the problem is compounded by the fact that the elections board still needs $300,000 to hold two elections this year and may sue, and the common pleas court has been underfunded by about $400,000. The county, however, expects no additional money this year, even if the sales tax passes.
Call for support
Terry Abrams of the HBA said the organization is solidly behind the tax and will run ads for it in local papers. He said commissioners need the tax revenue to more effectively run county government.
"It is time for the people who want to make things happen to come out and support the tax," Abrams said.
Oles, once a tax opponent, said she appreciates the commissioners are working full time at their jobs and trying to move the county forward, so she will now support the tax.
Brant, however, said he still sees some inefficiencies in county government, including the judicial system's having 18 magistrates, four alone in probate court, on the payroll. He said the justice system also needs to be streamlined to get inmates to trial more quickly.
Ed DeRose of Boardman said he believes county government has been "an employment agency" and that accountability still is lacking. He added the tax is not fair to the county's older residents.
Traficanti, board chairman, reminded the audience the county's financial woes didn't take place overnight and it will take time to correct some of the inefficiencies in county government. He stressed, however, that additional revenue is needed to get the job done.
"I'm here to change [county government] from this point forward," Traficanti said.
He also said the cost of doing business throughout the county has gone up and 70 percent of the general fund budget is dedicated to the criminal justice system, which includes the jail and the courts.
"There is not one county in Ohio with our crime rate and tax base with less than a 1 percent sales tax," Traficanti said.
The county's other half-percent sales tax, which expires in 2007, also generates between $12 million and $14 million.
Traficanti said later he's confident the tax will pass, but if it fails, the board will consider all its options, including imposing it or putting it on the November general election ballot.

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