If there is a silver lining in the saga of Mahoning County's fiscal crisis, is that the two new commissioners, Anthony Traficanti and John McNally IV, who begin their four-year terms this week, are bringing a fresh perspective to the discussion about government's future.
We would urge Traficanti and McNally, whom we endorsed in the November general election on the basis of their pledges to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the budget, to let it be known from their first day in office that there are no sacred cows.
We also believe they should invite Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery and her staff to meet with them and Commissioner David Ludt in a public session to discuss the details of a financial forecast that was prepared in response to a request from county officials last April. The forecast contains this stark warning: In three years, Mahoning County's general fund will run a deficit of $15.3 million if expenses are not slashed or additional revenue found.
Based on the staff analysis, Montgomery wrote, "If the projected deficits are to be avoided, the county will be faced with some difficult management decisions in the near future."
A no vote
A difficult management decision was made by commissioners Ludt, Edward Reese and Vicki Allen Sherlock: they voted to place a 0.5 percent sales tax issue on the November general election ballot. Had it passed, it would have been in effect permanently. But the issue lost by about 1,700 votes, which prompted supporters to urge the commissioners to impose it.
However, in their last meeting Thursday as county commissioners, Reese and Sherlock decided not to second a motion by Ludt for imposition. We find no fault with their stand. Reese and Sherlock chose not to seek re-election and rightly contended that a decision on whether to impose must be made by their successors, Traficanti and McNally, and Ludt.
In his parting comments, Reese conceded that county government cannot operate with the 0.5 percent sales tax that remains on the books. He suggested that a 1 percent permanent sales tax would provide government with financial stability and allow commissioners to undertake long-range planning.
Sherlock, on the other hand, said the tax had become a "political football" and that its defeat in November suggests to her that "wholesale changes" must be made in county government before the voters will give their blessing.
Because Traficanti and McNally have both indicated an unwillingness to impose the tax, there needs to be a public discussion of how money is being spent and where cuts can be made.
The presence of Montgomery and her staff should reassure critics that they aren't being railroaded.
During the fall campaign, Traficanti and McNally both publicly endorsed the 0.5 percent tax for a continuous period, while their challengers opposed it. Yet, Traficanti and McNally won.
It could be that the voters were delivering the following message to the winners: We like what you've been saying about taking a close look at budget and want to wait and see what you come up with before approving the sales tax.
Why put the onus on the commissioners to cut spending when there are other officeholders whose departments receive general fund money? Because they have control of the pursestrings. However, it would be advisable to invite all the elected officials to the session with the state auditor so they can hear for themselves just how critical the situation has become.
It would also be a good time for the new commissioners and Ludt to review the recommendations contained in a performance audit conducted by Montgomery's predecessor, Jim Petro, and determine a timeline for adopting them.
There is no quick or easy cure for Mahoning County's fiscal ailment, but Traficanti and McNally took the job knowing it would be a challenge. They now have a chance to prove that voters made the right decision.