Nothing but bad things are in store for Mahoning County if voters reject a 0.5 percent sales tax in Tuesday's primary election. Even with the adoption of the five-year tax, the county's financial picture will be bleak for a time -- but there won't be a total collapse.
Commissioner Anthony Traficanti, who took office in January, has used the phrase "crash and burn" to describe what will happen if Issue 1 on the ballot is rejected and if he and his two colleagues, David Ludt and John McNally IV, decide not to return it to the ballot in November and refuse to impose it.
"We're already on a slippery slope, and heading toward fiscal emergency," says Traficanti in a story on the front page. "We're all dying here. This county has been run into the ground."
Whether or not residents agree with his contention about past mismanagement, there should be no disagreement over this simple truth: If the tax is rejected, the commissioners will be forced to close the county jail, which grabs the largest slice of the general fund budget. And if that happens, Traficanti, McNally and Ludt would most probably face federal contempt of court citations because a federal judge is monitoring the operation of the jail. Judge David Dowd of the U.S. District Court in Akron has already blocked the furlough of 62 deputy sheriffs, thereby exacerbating the county's fiscal problems.
In the words of Auditor George J. Tablack, "We will carry deficits into next year, even if the tax passes. We will not be out of the woods this year or even next year."
At this point, some readers may be wondering what purpose would be served by adding the 0.5 percent if there isn't going to be an improvement in the budget this year or next. Having the tax on the books, to accompany the half-percent now in effect, would go a long way toward improving the county's economic forecast. Tablack and the commissioners are developing the forecast to determine if state-designated fiscal emergency is inevitable this year.
Tablack has said that based on the $12 million general fund spending as of the end of March, the outlay this year will hit $48 million, which is $8.1 million more than the county budget commission certified as available. When you spend more than you have, you're in the red. It's that simple.
But for Mahoning County government, the ramifications of such spending are enormous.
If residents want to understand what state fiscal emergency means, they should talk to Girard Mayor James Melfi and members of city council. It's not Big Brother watching you, it's Big Brother telling you what to do.
Federal Judge Dowd's involvement in the county jail will seem like a cakewalk once the state mandated fiscal planning and supervision commission takes control of the county's budget.
In Girard, such a commission has been in place since 2001, and its oversight of the city's finances is quite evident.
Last October, Unice Stevenson Smith, the state auditor's project manager for local government services in northeastern Ohio, told the mayor and council, "The city is going the wrong way." Smith was reacting to a cost-reduction plan that Melfi had developed.
While Mahoning County residents who have staked out an anti-tax position argue that having the state so intimately involved in local government is a good thing, such outside interference would have a major long-term effect on the economic health of the county. Fiscal emergency would mean the continued lowering of the county's bond rating, which would result in government's having to pay much higher interest rates to borrow money to finance urgently needed capital improvement projects.
It is our hope that thoughtful voters will go the polls Tuesday and vote for the 0.5 percent sales tax. As we've said on many occasions, it does not apply to groceries, prescription medication and the like. It is not an income or property tax.
Voters should also remember that Ohio's sales tax rate is 6 percent, while Mahoning County is one of only five counties that currently add just a half-percent on to the state rate. Seventy-six of the 88 counties have sales tax rates of 1 percent or higher.
"One thing people don't seem to understand is that 6 cents (on each dollar spent) goes to the state and at the present time a half-penny stays in Mahoning County," says Commissioner McNally, who served as Youngstown's law director before moving to the courthouse in January. "If you spent $1,000, Ohio would get $60 and Mahoning County would get $5. With the passage of Issue One on Tuesday, Mahoning County would get $10."
Federal, state mandates
An objective, fair evaluation of county government's fiscal crisis will lead to the conclusion that even if every cost-cutting measure were enacted and every non-mandated service eliminated, there still would not be enough money to meet the obligations set forth by the state and federal governments.
We urge the passage of Issue 1 and remain confident that freshmen commissioners Traficanti and McNally and their colleague, Ludt, will lead the way in implementing efficiencies that taxpayers have been demanding for years.