It’s a debate worth having

Mahoning County Probate Judge Mark Belinky has yet to get traction on an idea he launched in April with regard to the governance of the Mill Creek Metropolitan Park District, but he isn’t giving up.

Belinky, who was appointed to the bench in December by Gov. Ted Strickland to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Judge Timothy Maloney, believes that the district’s board of commissioners should be expanded from three to five members. The reason: a metropolitan park and other facilities financed by a special tax that’s paid for by all the property owners in Mahoning County should be governed by a wider representation of the community than three members allow.

Indeed, the fact that commissioners Virginia Dailey, Carl Nunziato and Dr, Rick Shale are all Boardman residents has made Judge Belinky more determined than ever to bring about the expansion. Under state law, the probate judge is the appointing authority, but the expansion of the board is in the hands of the current membership.

Cynics might well wonder whether Judge Belinky has latched on to a campaign issue that could resonate with the electorate. He is on the ballot this November seeking a full six-year term. In the March Democratic primary, Belinky won the nomination by defeating two well-known members of the county bar, Struthers Municipal Court Judge James R. Lanzo and Atty. Susan Maruca.

Belinky will face County Court Judge Scott Hunter, a Republican, in the November general election.

A worthy issue

But even if his actions are politically motivated, the issue is one that is worthy of debate. After all, Mill Creek Park is the Mahoning Valley’s crown jewel, and its operation, maintenance and future planning are everyone’s business.

In a letter dated April 10 to the commissioners, the judge defended his call for an expansion thus:

“With an operating budget of $13,000,000, I feel strongly that the Mill Creek MetroParks Board should be expanded to five members, which is still a small enough number not to be considered unwieldy. ... I think it would be beneficial for the Park to have a commissioner from the City of Youngstown, in which much of the Park actually is situated. I also feel if we have a commissioner who resides in an area that has not traditionally been represented on the Park Board, it would help the Park in future revenue requests from the public.”

Belinky followed up the letter with an appearance at the April 21 meeting of the board and intends to be present at this month’s meeting.

His point about future revenue is well taken — given the reality of the last vote on the park levy.

In the November 2001 election, voters were asked to approve a 1.75-mill county-wide tax for 15 years. The millage was less than the 1.9 that had been on the books and was set to expire at the end of 2002.

The measure passed by 3,496 votes — 33,947 for; 30,451 against.

Vote breakdown

A breakdown of the votes revealed the park’s soft underbelly. Residents in 18 communities, the most significant being Austintown, said no to the levy. While the people of Austintown have shown a general aversion to taxes, many of the outlying communities just did not view the park district as being important to the quality of their lives — at least not important enough to pay for it.

Therein lies the challenge for the board of commissioners. Although the levy will be in effect until 2016, future planning requires a dependable source of revenue.

Expanding the board from three to five members and ensuring that the outlying areas have a representative would go a long way toward making residents in Sebring, for example, stakeholders in the park district.

As for the city of Youngstown, the vote on the levy was 7,457 for and 4,061 against. Prior to the formation of a metropolitan park district, only city residents paid a tax for the operation and maintenance of the facility. Board membership historically included a city resident.

Judge Belinky’s point about having an individual from Youngstown is one that should not be dismissed. Given the city’s bleak financial outlook, the park district could well be viewed as a luxury.

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