By joe gorman
Voters in Mahoning County will decide on a sales-tax measure in the May primary election, but only one.
County commissioners voted Thursday to place a renewal of the county’s half percent tax on the ballot to raise $15.5 million annually for a continuing period.
But they decided to shelve a plan — for now — to place an additional quarter percent tax before voters, which would raise about $7.5 million annually.
County officials said after two public hearings, and hearing from residents, they were afraid voters would turn down both measures. So they decided to concentrate on renewing the half percent tax.
Commissioners Chairman David Ditzler said the county is in desperate need of the renewal. He said even with that tax being renewed plus the additional half percent the county already collects, the county still will face a $2 million hole in its budget by the end of the year.
Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti echoed a theme from other officeholders in saying that commissioners need to go to the public and explain better how they are spending their sales-tax dollars and why the additional quarter percent is needed.
“It’s not that we don’t need it [quarter percent],” Rimedio-Righetti said. “But we also understand the need to maybe explain that better, maybe get a better vision.”
She said the recent controversy over a 3 percent raise for county board of elections employees, which was approved by that board and then put on hold, had nothing do with the commissioners’ decision on postponing the new sales tax.
The county’s general fund is funded by two half percent sales-tax measures. The other half percent measure is continuous with no expiration date.
Auditor Michael Sciortino suggested the commissioners have an impartial body such as the state or Youngstown State University audit the county’s books, and use those studies to show voters how their money is being spent and why the additional quarter percent tax is needed.
Sciortino said the need for additional revenue is crucial but he does not want to jeopardize the current revenue stream. He said passing the half percent measure in May is vital.
“This county cannot survive on less than 1 percent sales tax,” Sciortino said.
Mahoning County also has a 0.25 percent, five-year sales tax that funds the Western Reserve Transit Authority. Mahoning County residents pay a total of 7 percent sales tax, most of which is collected by the state.
In arguing for the new quarter percent tax, commissioners cited $10.5 million in lost revenue since 2008, including a $3.2 million loss in investment income, a $2.9 million decline in state funding and a $4.4 million loss in income from housing federal prisoners in the county jail.
Ditzler said he does want to put the quarter percent issue on the ballot in November. He said he and his colleagues are sifting through suggestions of who can look at the county’s books and do not yet have a timetable for when that might happen.