Two people spoke during public comment in favor of the Mahoning County commissioners’ proposal to renew a county sales tax continuously and add a new one for five years at a public hearing, and eight people spoke against it.
A major dispute in the discussion concerned the fairness of the sales tax, especially for low-income people.
The speakers were among about 100 people who attended the Monday hearing, which ran more than two hours and had to be moved from the commissioners’ courthouse basement meeting room, where it originally was scheduled, to the fourth-floor domestic relations courtroom because of the size of the crowd.
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 on the May 6 ballot.
The new 0.25 percent sales tax would generate $7.75 million in new annual income for the county.
“Right now, we need the money. Put the sales tax on, but as soon as we don’t need the money, take it off,” urged Bruce Paulette of Youngstown, who spoke in favor of the sales tax during public comment.
Paulette predicted the county will enjoy a substantial increase in sales-tax revenue due to oil and gas drilling and related activities as has been seen in Columbiana County.
“When you don’t have money, you can’t do anything, so we’ve got to help them so they can help us,” said Linda Kovachik of Boardman, who spoke in support of the commissioners’ proposal during public comment.
During her presentation, Audrey Tillis, county budget director, said the county’s general-fund revenue losses have totaled $10.5 million since 2008 — $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.
“Sales taxes are regressive” because they disproportionately impact poor people “in a county that is home to the highest rate of concentrated poverty in the nation,” complained Rebecca Soldan, an organizer with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.
Poor people spend a larger share of their incomes than others for necessities, Soldan said.
“While it is true that our area is facing major budget shortfalls, we should not be asking folks who cannot afford it to foot the bill,” Soldan added during the portion of the hearing reserved for opponents of the commissioners’ proposal.
She also said MVOC wants to meet with the commissioners within 30 days on the tax issue and “solutions that will benefit our community.” David Ditzler, chairman of the commissioners, agreed to such a meeting.
Richard Ostheimer of Youngstown said he supports the renewal for a specified time period, but not the proposed additional sales tax.
“The sales tax is probably the most-fair form of taxation that we could put on to the electorate to give them an opportunity to vote on,” Ditzler said before the commissioners’ meeting that preceded the hearing. The only other tax option for a county government entity is a real-estate tax, he added.
Standard & Poors has warned that the stable outlook rating it has given the county could be jeopardized by a decrease in sales-tax revenue due to “economic volatility or any other reason,” county Auditor Michael V. Sciortino said during the hearing.
If the renewal fails, S&P would lower the county’s rating, Sciortino said.
Sean A. Kern, business manager for the county board of developmental disabilities and a former audit manager for the state auditor’s office, who has audited various Ohio county governments during his 20 years with the state auditor’s office, said Mahoning County government operates efficiently.
“The expenditures — they’re being closely watched. I believe you are getting your bang for the buck when it comes to services” in the county, he said during the commissioners’ meeting.
The board of developmental disabilities does not receive any sales-tax revenue, said Kern, a certified public accountant.