Commissioners get an earful of sales tax comments

Published: Tue, July 1, 2014 @ 12:05 a.m.
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The audience listens as Mahoning County officials present their rationales for a three-quarter percent sales tax on the Nov. 4 ballot in McMahon Hall at the Mill Creek MetroParks Farm in Canfield.

By Peter H. Milliken


When the Mahoning County commissioners came here to conduct their second of two public hearings on the three-quarter percent sales tax slated for the Nov. 4 ballot, they heard a more diversified range of comments than they did at the first hearing last week in downtown Youngs-town, where no one spoke against the tax.

Passage of the tax is essential because of reductions in state funding to local governments, Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul J. Gains told an audience of more than 50 Monday at the second public hearing on the tax at the Mill Creek MetroParks farm on state Route 46.

“We’re coming to you because Columbus has cut us, and we have no choice but to come to you in order to maintain the progress that we’ve made in making this a safe community, and it is a far safer community today than it has been in the last two decades,” Gains said.

He noted that there were more than 60 homicides a year in Youngstown in the mid-1990s, but there have been only five in the first half of this year.

“There are no threats here tonight. What they did tonight was they told you exactly what they need,” Frank Moran said of county officials’ detailed presentations concerning the tax. “Nobody wants to pay more, but the point is that we do need it,” said Moran, who favors the tax.

Moran noted that residents of other counties who visit the Covelli Centre and who will visit the new Austintown racino, when it opens this fall, will help the county by paying the tax on purchases they make here.

Some of the speakers against the tax delivered scathing criticisms of county government.

“There’s too much corruption,” said Cynthia Colonna of Beaver Township. “We need to stop the corruption before we ask for more money,” she added.

Due to a 49 percent pay cut, “I had to cut down my budget. I had to go without things. Why can’t you people cut down yours?” Colonna told county officials.

Colonna said she recently found three employees of the county clerk of courts “playing games on their computers.”

Sean Cornelius of Austintown spoke against the three-quarter percent tax that’s proposed for this year and suggested county workers take two additional years of concessions in their compensation.

He said he might now support a half-percent sales-tax renewal, continuously or for five years, and would consider supporting an additional quarter percent two years from now.

“I have taken a 20 percent pay cut in the private sector. I’ve had to tighten my belt,” he said.

The county commissioners presented two sales tax options for public comment.

Both would renew an existing half-percent sales tax for five years and add a quarter-percent tax of the same duration.

Either option would raise about $24 million annually.

One of the options would restrict the money’s use to the sheriff’s, coroner’s and prosecutor’s offices and the 911 emergency dispatching center.

Of the county’s $53.3 million 2013 general-fund budget, $39.1 million, or 73.43 percent, went to public safety and court functions of county government.

The second option would allow unrestricted use of the money in the county’s general fund, which is its main operating fund.

The county has another half-percent sales tax the voters made continuous in May 2007.

Each of the current half-percent sales taxes generates about $16 million a year, for a total of about $32 million.

The county’s general-fund budget this year totals $54.1 million, including nearly $2.6 million carried over from 2013 into 2014.

Audrey Tillis, county budget director, said the county needs the extra quarter percent, which would add about $8 million annually to the county sales-tax revenues, to compensate for recent losses averaging $8 million annually in income from state funding, investments and federal prisoner housing revenues.

The campaign for the November sales tax follows the narrow defeat in May of a proposed continuous renewal of the half-percent sales tax that expires Sept. 30, 2015.

That tax lost by 519 votes countywide May 6.

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