Putting the sales tax on the ballot was the easiest part

Putting the sales tax on the ballot was the easiest part

Mahoning County commissioners and all other officeholders have their work cut out for them after agreeing Tuesday to put a half-cent sales tax issue on the ballot for permanent renewal.

There can be little question that the county needs the income. Half the counties in Ohio already have piggyback tax rates that exceed that of Mahoning County.

The state’s basic sales tax is 5.5 percent. Local sales taxes bring the rate in various counties from a low of 6.25 percent in four counties to 7.75 percent in one county, Cuyahoga, which has a 1.25 percent county tax and a 1 percent mass transit tax. Forty-three counties have a combination of local and state taxes that total 7 percent.

Mahoning County, with two half-percent county issues and a quarter-percent transit tax, is among the 16 counties where the taxes total 6.75 percent. Twenty-four others have 6.5 percent. All but two of those counties have the same 1 percent sales tax to support county operations that Mahoning County has.

But numbers can only tell part of the story. It is up to county officials whose offices rely on those tax receipts to make the case to the county’s voters.

It is easy enough to tell the voters that without the revenue, the county will not be able to operate the sheriff’s department or the jail, or run the prosecutors office or the courts. Certainly, people want police protection, and they want criminals to be put behind bars.

Assurances needed

But they also want to know that every office — from the commissioners to the prosecutor, to the sheriff’s department and each of the courts and administrative offices — is doing what it can to reduce the cost of government. They want to know that as people in the private sector have been called on to make sacrifices that include wage cuts or freezes, higher health care co-pays and reduced pension plans, that county employees can empathize.

Some departments have made cuts, some haven’t, and others are demanding more.

That is going to make passage of a tax issue — even a renewal — a difficult sell.

Some county officials are sure to point out that the recession has already cut into the county’s general fund, dropping revenue by about $8 million, to below $60 million this year.

Which will lead, naturally enough, to some voters asking if every department did its part in absorbing its share of that 13 percent loss of revenue. And to the extent that any department didn’t, the taxpayer will be able to point out that, obviously, there other places cuts can be made.

We do not envy the commissioners and other officeholders the task ahead of them, which will require that each of them do his or her part in convincing the voters that passage is warranted.

And we do not envy the task ahead of Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras, who has already pledged the party’s resources to passage of the issue, because all but a few judges are his party’s officeholders. They are potentially his greatest assets or greatest liabilities in appealing for support from the voters.

We do not believe that the county could function, much less plan for the future, with the loss of another $14 million or so that would result if the half-percent sales tax were not renewed. But we’re not the ones who have to be convinced.

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