Pay raises undermine renewal of Mahoning County sales tax

With the May 6 primary elecTION on the horizon, Mahoning County commissioners are in the unenviable position of having to justify 700-plus pay raises of more than 3 percent as the electorate contemplates the renewal of a 0.5-percent sales tax.

Why justify? Because private-sector taxpayers still struggling to make ends meet as a result of the national economic recession that began in late 2008 won’t be in a giving mood if they believe their money is being squandered.

In this day and age, a pay raise for well- compensated public employees could meet the definition of the word squandered in the minds of many voters.

As the Page One story Sunday by reporter Peter H. Milliken revealed, the raises were for a variety of reasons, including pension fixes.

Manipulation of an employee’s pension contribution is an issue private sector taxpayers will find most egregious because it could be viewed as rewarding individuals for doing what the law requires of them.

In years past, when county government faced budget crises and there wasn’t any money for raises, some officeholders took care of their hirelings by having the public treasury pay the employer and employee shares of the public-pension contributions.

We have long railed against this obvious budgetary sleight-of-hand and have on numerous occasions demanded a change in the law to prohibit this misuse of public dollars.

The law was ultimately amended — albeit many years too late — to put a stop to the practice, which means workers no longer get a free ride. Unfortunately, in government, there’s a belief that public employees should be made whole if they stand to lose money. Thus, the pension fix — individuals who have begun paying their share of the contribution have been given raises to make up the lost income.

Commissioners Anthony Traficanti, Carol Rimedio-Righetti and David Ditzler can’t be blind to the fact that Sunday’s front-page story that detailed the wallet-fattening moves in the last couple of years has sucked the wind out of their sales-tax sails.

Until the story broke, the only major issue they had to contend with was the reluctance by some voters to renew the 0.5-percent sales tax for a continuing period — as opposed to having it expire in five years.

The tax on the May 6 actually nwill be in effect until 2015. The other 0.5-percent sales tax is on the books permanently.

Financial stability

Commissioners Traficanti, Rimedio-Righetti and Ditzler contend that county government needs financial stability, and that having a five-year expiration date prevents them from developing long-range plans.

But given that more than 70 percent of the county’s general fund, which is fed by proceeds from the two sales taxes, goes for salaries and benefits, voters will be looking for more of an explanation.

Thus, to make amends, county officials would do well to dust off the Peat Marwick study of county government completed 15 years ago and figure out which of the many recommendations have been ignored. They should then publicly pledge to adopt all the changes in the operation of county government contained in that very costly analysis.

One of the key recommendations is the creation of a master salary blueprint for all of county government so as to eliminate the uneven pay scales that now exist.

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