There isn’t a lot of time to sell Mahoning sales tax to voters

The general election is Nov. 4, and on the ballot will be a sales-tax issue that has become an article of faith for Mahoning County commissioners. Just two months ago, county voters said “no” to the renewal of a 0.5-percent sales tax because commissioners Anthony Traficanti, Carol Rimedio-Righetti and David Ditzler decided to go for broke (in a manner of speaking) and make it permanent. The tax had been on the books for a five-year period.

Although the 519-vote losing margin out of 32,965 votes cast was a hopeful sign, the general election will be a different proposition. For starters, there will be many more residents going to the polls given the statewide and congressional races. Beyond that, the commissioners are not only seeking to keep the 0.5-percent tax in place, but are going after an additional 0.25 percent.

At first glance, it may seem counter-intuitive for the commissioners to seek a 0.75-percent tax when voters rejected the renewal of a lower amount, but they and other Mahoning County officials, led by Sheriff Jerry Greene, believe there’s a strong case to be made.

However, this question looms: Is there enough time to win over an electorate that is, at best, suspicious about government? The on- going criminal investigations of county officeholders are a major point of contention for private-sector taxpayers, as is the slow recovery from the national economic recession that hit in late 2008.

The sheriff, the county commissioners and others answer in the affirmative. That’s because they believe they have a strong pitch for passage of the 0.75-percent tax: All the estimated $24 million generated would be used to support the sheriff’s, prosecutor’s and coroner’s offices, and the 911 emergency dispatching center.

“This is the first time that voters in Mahoning County will actually have a chance to vote for a sales tax that they know exactly what the money is going to be spent on,” Greene said after the commissioners voted to place the three-quarter percent sales tax dedicated to public safety on the Nov. 4 ballot. “It is certainly going to add stability to the criminal justice system.”

Both the half-percent renewal and the additional 0.25 percent would be in effect for five years.

Public hearings

The commissioners hosted two public hearings before they made the decision on the ballot issue, but few residents showed up.

The first session was attended by county officials and the press; the second session brought out about 50 residents.

While some of the attendees voiced support for the public safety tax, others weren’t so enthusiastic about paying taxes of any kind.

Commissioners Traficanti, Rimedio-Righetti and Ditzler plan to continue the public campaign for the ballot issue to the very end. That’s the right strategy, especially in the rural communities where the “no” votes ruled the day in the May primary.

There is a case to be made for renewing the 0.5-percent tax and adding a 0.25-percent tax, but county officials must know that private- sector taxpayers are looking for reassurances that the money won’t be squandered.

The 0.5-percent sales tax expires in September 2015, which means that if it is again defeated this year, commissioners will have one more chance to take it before the voters — in the May 2015 primary.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.