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Mahoning commissioners are rolling the dice

Published: Fri, July 18, 2014 @ 12:00 a.m.

By David Skolnick (Contact)

On the side

A man of his word: When Mahoning County Democratic Chairman David Betras said Mark Hanni, a common pleas court candidate, wouldn’t receive support from the party, he meant it.

Betras was angered that Hanni called precinct committee members on behalf of a challenger to the chairman. The judicial code of conduct doesn’t permit judicial candidates to involve themselves in partisan politics.

After being re-elected June 7, Betras said of Hanni: “He will not be getting the support of the Democratic Party in this upcoming race” and “will not be part of the coordinated campaign.”

The party is having a $100-a-ticket fundraiser for its judicial fund at 5 p.m. July 31 at the Embassy, 5030 Youngstown-Poland Road. The invitation lists the five other candidates, three were unopposed, who won the Democratic primary, but not Hanni, an unopposed primary write-in winner.

After Mahoning County voters rejected a permanent 0.5-percent sales tax in May, commissioners decided it was a great idea to put a larger sales tax on the Nov. 4 ballot with the expectation it will pass.

It was reasonable for the commissioners to try to get the 5-year renewal tax approved by voters on a permanent basis. The thought was if it failed — and it did by 501 votes, 1.6 percentage points — in May, the county could come back in November with a five-year renewal. If that also failed, there’s the May 2015 election to get it passed because the existing tax doesn’t expire until Sept. 30, 2015.

The county has another 0.5-percent sales tax that became permanent in May 2007. Each 0.5 percent raises about $16 million annually, and the sales tax is county’s main operating fund.

After the permanent tax failed in May, Commissioner Anthony Traficanti told me the renewal was the best option for the November ballot. It is hard to disagree with that. It’s logical. It’s the same sales tax people are paying now and with the permanent tax losing by a small margin, it likely would pass as a five-year renewal in November.

After the tax failed in May, Commissioner David Ditzler proposed a 1-percent tax dedicated to the justice system.

Ditzler’s thought process was people said no to a 0.5-percent permanent tax so let’s have them consider paying twice as much because the proceeds would go to justice services.

The commissioners voted July 2 to have voters consider a 0.75-percent, five-year sales tax on the Nov. 4 ballot with the money, about $24 million annually, dedicated to fund the sheriff’s department, the coroner, 911 emergency dispatch, and prosecutor’s office. About half of the county’s budget already goes to those departments.

It sounds like selling the lottery to the public because proceeds would go to education. Yes, lottery proceeds do exactly that, but other money previously used for education is spent elsewhere.

As one prominent elected official in Mahoning County told me, the proposed justice-system county sales tax is a shell game and the public will see right through it.

The county’s economy isn’t booming, and commissioners are asking for more money after voters said no to the same amount of sales-tax dollars on a permanent basis rather than one that needs to be renewed every five years.

There was consideration earlier this year to put a 0.25-percent new sales tax on the ballot in addition to the 0.5-percent permanent renewal. The reason it didn’t happen is county officials were afraid voters would turn down both measures.

Pay-raise controversy

That decision also came on the heels of the county board of elections approving 3-percent raises for employees, a salary increase that lasted for about six hours after conflicting statements in response to questions about whether the commissioners approved the raises and the attitudes of some dismissing the raises as not being an issue.

Why the commissioners think people will approve a single issue with a 0.75-percent sales tax in November is a mystery to me.

The county can come back in May 2015 and put a 0.5-percent five-year renewal tax on the ballot if the 0.75-percent proposal is rejected this November.

But there’s a huge risk involved.

The county will have to count on voters, who would have rejected two sales taxes in 2014, agreeing on a ballot measure to keep the existing tax.

Turnout for May 2015 is going to likely be worse than the near-record low of 17 percent in May 2013. Those voting may be angry enough at the county commissioners for messing around with the sales tax two times in 2014 that the few who cast ballots will reject a renewal.

That’s the gamble county commissioners are willing to take — and it’s one with potentially dangerous consequences.

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