Mahoning County wins on language for sales tax

Persistence has paid DIVIDENDS for Mahoning County government on an issue that had the potential of bringing about the defeat of the half-percent sales tax that will be on the May 4 primary ballot.

Now, the only thing standing in the way of passage is the perception on the part of some residents that government can do without the revenue generated by the tax. It’s up to commissioners David Ludt, Anthony Traficanti and John A. McNally IV and other officeholders to deliver the message that this is not a new tax.

That’s right, it’s a renewal, and the word will appear in the title of the tax issue — in parenthesis.

The inclusion of the word renewal in the ballot language was the result of Prosecutor Paul Gains’ persistence in his dealings with the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office. The state’s chief elections officer had insisted for months that only the word continuation could be used and that the state statute does not provide for the term “renewal” in the language. The prohibition only applies to sales and use taxes.

But Gains, as the county’s lawyer, argued that in 2007, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner’s office approved the use of the word renewal for the other half-percent sales tax. That year, voters renewed the tax on a continuous basis, having been convinced that a guaranteed source of revenue would allow county government to undertake long-range planning.

However, last November when the commissioners asked voters to renew the other 0.5 percent sales tax on a continuous basis, the answer was “no.”

Therefore, the issue on the May ballot will be a renewal for five years. The decision reflects a recognition on the part of commissioners Ludt, Traficanti and McNally of the economic challenges confronting many families in the county.

Those same challenges are being faced by government, as a front page story in Friday’s Vindicator detailed. It was the same day that the story about the secretary of state permitting the county to use the word renewal in the May primary was published.

According to county Administrator George Tablack, a former county auditor, the general fund revenues for the first two months of this year have declined by 4.54 percent over the same period in 2009 — $4.39 million vs. $4.19 million.

Potential annual loss

But that’s not the only cause for concern. If the trends continue, Tablack said, the total revenue loss for the year would be $1.2 million.

Add to that the 9.73 percent reduction in state funding — from $936,787 to $845,678 — and the budgetary implications are clear.

If voters refuse to renew the half-percent sales tax in May, there would be a loss of $13 million to $14 million in revenue that goes into the general fund.

The need for both taxes that have been on the books for some time is uncontested — unless you are one of those people who think that government does nothing but waste money.

But the commissioners and other officeholders must be prepared to demonstrate what cuts they are willing to make to address the $1.2 million revenue shortfall, should Tablack’s projections come true.

And since at least 80 percent of the general fund goes for salaries and benefits, that’s where the changes must occur.

Voters will respond positively to county government officials demonstrating an understanding of what they face in their daily lives.

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