COLUMBIANA CO. Justices hear funding debate

Justices will consider whether East Liverpool should get a chance to make its budget cut case.
COLUMBUS -- The Columbiana County Budget Commission overstepped its bounds when it reduced the amount of local government money the city of East Liverpool received in 2002 and 2003, Columbus lawyer John Varanese told the Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday.
Varanese, who represents the city, said it didn't get a chance to present evidence to the commission because its members never held an official hearing.
Akron Atty. Stephen Funk, speaking for the budget commission, told the high court that Ohio statutes don't require the county to hold a need-based hearing on alternate funding methods.
Past Supreme Court decisions held it is not an abuse of discretion to use alternate formulas, Funk told the justices.
Besides, he said, East Liverpool knew about the public meeting at which the commission discussed funding methods, but no political subdivision testified.
"As I understand it, they just chose not to appear," he said.
The high court took the matter under advisement.
Singled out?
The city was prepared for budget reductions but felt singled out as the only subdivision penalized by the new formula, Varanese said.
"If we had been reasonably reduced, we probably wouldn't be here today," he told the court.
The budget commission's decision reduced general fund revenues by 17 percent, Varanese said. If the city could have presented its case, it would have pointed out that it was about to sustain an additional 9 percent reduction in other revenue.
"We would have put a face on these cuts to the budget commission," Varanese said. The commission, he said, would have found out that its ruling would mean the city would lay off police and firefighters and that it would impede the community's ability to repair roads.
Evening the pot
Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton asked Varanese whether East Liverpool's more-generous allocation than other political subdivisions during the previous five years balanced the reductions for 2002 and 2003.
"Isn't it pretty likely under the new formula you were reduced because ... you were getting a much larger, disproportionate share of the funds pursuant to your population?" Justice Stratton asked. "It makes absolute sense that one who gets more than its share is going to get a little bit less than the others, and they're going to get a little bit more to even the pot."
Varanese said the city expected a smaller allotment. It was hoping, though, for a "soft landing" that would avoid the financial calamity dictated by its general fund in 2003, he said.
He asked the high court to require the commission to return to the method of funding established in 1990.
Justice Stratton said it seemed fairer to her to refer the matter back for a hearing.

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