By PETER H. MILLIKEN
The president of the union representing Mahoning County deputy sheriff is proposing a November ballot initiative for a new sales tax dedicated solely to the sheriff’s department.
“I hate to go to the people and ask them for more taxes, but the fact of the matter is the half-percent they just voted on, they thought was going to fix our problem,” said Sheriff’s Deputy Glenn Kountz, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 141.
Kountz was referring to the half- percent sales tax the county’s voters renewed May 4 by a 2-1 margin for five years.
Despite renewal of that tax, the county is facing a recession-induced financial crisis that caused the sheriff to issue layoff notices May 21 to 86 deputies and two civilian employees of the sheriff’s department, effective June 6, in conjunction with the closing of half of the county jail.
“The people have been calling us, calling the sheriff’s office, blaming him, blaming us for laying off and letting inmates out,” Kountz said. In an interview outside the county jail on Friday, Kountz said he does not yet know what percentage the new tax would be.
“It’s going to be miserable in here when we lay off because we don’t know how we can release inmates because of the city’s stance,” that it will sue if county jail inmates are released in violation of municipal judges’ orders, Kountz said.
“The public should be outraged because I think their safety is in jeopardy,” Kountz said, adding that crime and the jail population typically rise during the summer.
County Administrator George J. Tablack declined to comment on the proposed new tax, saying, “I have no legal authority over that matter.”
Kountz also said the union will pay its own forensic auditor to audit the county’s books at a cost of $8,000 to $10,000.
“I don’t know who to believe. If you believe [County Auditor Michael] Sciortino, it’s this. If you believe Tablack, it’s that,’’ Kountz explained.
Kountz said the sheriff’s $11.8 million budget for this year is $1 million less that his budget for 1996, the year the Fifth Avenue jail opened. Last year, the sheriff spent $17.3 million.
Tablack said his revenue projections have been accurate over the last several years, and that the sheriff’s budget dropped sharply below last year’s level because of the loss of revenue from city and federal prisoners who were housed in the county jail.
Sheriff’s department employees lost that income “through no fault of their own, but the income is gone,” Tablack said.
The county’s agreement with the Corrections Corp. of America for the housing of up to 150 federal prisoners in the county jail expired last year, and the city’s payments for its prisoners stopped with the February 2010 expiration of a three-year city-county agreement.
Kountz said union members plan informational picketing at the county administration building as the layoffs take effect.
“It’s his prerogative,” Sheriff Randall A. Wellington said of the picketing, declining to comment on the other issues Kountz raised.
“We’re waiting for the commissioners to act, and they’re not acting. They’re not doing anything. They have no plan” to address the financial crisis, Kountz said.
“This problem he refers to is something that every government in the entire United States is experiencing today. It’s the recession,” Tablack said.
With 6,000 signatures gathered of the 15,000 required, Kountz said his effort to recall the county commissioners is proceeding.