Penn National can be mediator in Y’town-A’town JEDD battle

Left to their own devices, Youngstown and Austintown government officials will not find common ground on the city’s proposal to create a Joint Economic Development District encompassing the site of the racino being built in the township.

There just isn’t the level of trust on the part of Austintown trustees that’s needed to bring the parties together.

However, having officials of Penn National Gaming, which is building the $125 million Hollywood Slots at Mahoning Valley Race Course off state Route 46, at the table could break the tension.

The latest flare-up on the part of Austintown trustees Lisa Oles, Jim Davis and Rick Stauffer to Mayor Charles Sammarone’s plan for the creation of a taxation district comes as no surprise. Austintown and Youngstown have been at loggerheads for many years, first because of the surcharge township residents must pay for Youngstown drinking water, and then for a short-sighted plan by the administration of former Mayor Jay Williams to use water as a bargaining tool for the creation of JEDDs.

A proposal by Williams — it was pushed by Finance Director David Bozanich — would have resulted in the city’s 2.75 percent income- tax rate being paid by new and existing employees within the districts.

With Bozanich again involved in the JEDD proposal, Trustee Oles and her colleagues appear to believe they’re again being steamrolled. Though Mayor Sammarone has insisted that his only interest is to make sure that both communities share in whatever payoff would be forthcoming from the income tax paid by racino employees and the profit tax paid by Penn National, the initial reaction in Austintown has been an unequivocal “No thanks.”

However, an official of Penn National is not as closed-minded as the trustees over the income tax, but withheld comment about the profit tax.

On the other hand, Bob Tannenbaum, Penn National spokesman, said a $2 million annual fee to use city water in lieu of a JEDD would be unprecedented and “could have a chilling effect on the [racino] project.”

Although Sammarone would rather meet first with Austintown officials to see if the two governments can find common ground, we would suggest Penn National’s involvement from the outset.

Major investment

After all, this is about a major investment by a leader in the international gaming industry. In addition to the $125 million being spent on the slots casino and thoroughbred horse-racing track, the company is paying $125 million to secure a slot-machine license and to relocate the track from Beulah Park to Austintown.

Austintown’s Davis was the one who suggested having Penn National officials at the meeting. It appears to be the only way city and township officials will come close to sitting across the table from each other.

At the last board of trustees meeting, Oles was adamant that she isn’t interested in any JEDD proposal from Youngstown. And since all three trustees would have to sign off, the plan is a nonstarter.

Oles, who has battled Youngstown in the past, has characterized what Sammarone has proposed as “greedy politicians” wanting to tax the middle class.

She also has said that the $1 million the township will receive in 2014 and 2015 from Penn National for infrastructure improvements and then $500,000 a year for the life of the racino is adequate revenue from the racino.

Youngstown and Austintown need to find common ground, and Penn National can facilitate the search.

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