Sales tax hearing held despite weather

Published: Tue, January 7, 2014 @ 12:07 a.m.

By Peter H. Milliken


About 50 people, most of them department heads or employees of Mahoning County, braved plummeting temperatures and a brutal wind-chill to attend a Monday evening hearing at the Covelli Centre on the county commissioners’ proposal to renew an existing sales tax and to add a new one.

On the May 6 ballot, the commissioners propose to renew a 0.50-percent sales tax continuously and to enact a new 0.25-percent sales tax for five years beginning Oct. 1, 2014.

County officials found themselves preaching to the choir at the advertised hearing, which Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti said could not be postponed if the commissioners still wanted to meet various ballot deadlines for the May election.

Barbara Brothers of Youngstown was the only person to speak for the tax proposal during the public-comment period.

“If we want to have services in our community, the state has left us no option but to increase the taxes that we pay at the local level,” because of cuts in state funding to local governments, Brothers said in her brief remarks.

Nobody spoke against the commissioners’ tax proposal.

The county has a separate 0.50-percent sales tax that is already continuous, meaning that it has no stated expiration date.

The Western Reserve Transit Authority has its own 0.25-percent, five-year county sales tax.

During a lengthy power-point presentation on the county budget, Audrey C. Tillis, county budget director, said renewal of the 0.50-percent tax that will be on the ballot this year is critical.

“There’s no way that this general fund can survive losing $15 million,” she said, explaining why the 0.50-percent tax, which raises $15.5 million annually, is being presented this year as a continuous renewal. “If you cut $15 million out of this county’s budget, you really would shut down government,” she added.

Tillis said the new 0.25-percent sales tax is necessary to compensate for losses in revenue in recent years from the state, from the county’s investments and from three years of lack of income from the housing of federal prisoners in the county jail.

The commissioners say their revenue losses have totaled $10.5 million since 2008, including $3.2 million in lost investment income, $2.9 million in lost state funding and a $4.4 million loss in federal prisoner revenue.

Federal prisoners returned to the county jail last fall for the first time since 2010.

The new 0.25-percent sales tax would add $7.75 million annually to the county’s coffers.

The commissioners have adopted a $50.2 million general fund budget for 2014.

The general fund, which is the county’s main operating fund, pays for the operation of the sheriff’s office, which runs the jail, the prosecutor’s office, the courts and the central administration of county government.

Except for $1.4 million that went into the debt-service fund last year and $1,050,000 that will go there this year, all sales-tax revenue goes into the general fund.

Anthony D’Apolito, county juvenile court administrator, said the taxpayers’ investment in the juvenile justice system, which will consume nearly $5.6 million from the general fund this year, is money well-spent because it likely limits additional future expenses for the adult jail and prison system.

“If you put the money into it at this level, then you’re probably going to save it later,” he said of the juvenile justice system.

Currently, Mahoning County is among 15 Ohio counties with a total sales tax rate of 7 percent.

Forty-nine of Ohio’s 88 counties, including Columbiana, have total sales taxes of 7.25 percent.

Cuyahoga County has the highest rate at 8 percent, and that includes a full 1 percent for mass transit.

Nineteen Ohio counties, including Trumbull, have 6.75 percent; and four, including Stark, charge only 6.5 percent.

County and mass transit sales taxes are in addition to the 5.75 percent sales tax the state collects. The state raised its rate from 5.5 to 5.75 percent on Sept. 1, 2013.

Another public hearing on the commissioners’ sales tax proposal will be at 10:30 a.m. next Monday in the commissioners’ Mahoning County Courthouse basement meeting room.

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