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Public hearings on sales tax as important as casting a vote



Published: Sun, June 15, 2014 @ 12:00 a.m.

It would be a mistake for Mahoning County officials, especially the commissioners, to find solace in the fact that the renewal of a 0.5-percent sales tax went down to defeat May 6 by a mere 519 votes. The reality is that voter turnout was so low that there are no credible conclusions to be drawn from the outcome.

The number of voters in the November general election, when the tax-renewal issue will again be on the ballot, will be much larger and much more discerning. That’s because the statewide election, from the governor on down, will have Republicans and Democrats pulling out all the political stops.

Issues on the ballot, such as the sales-tax renewal, will get wrapped up in the bloody battles.

That means Commissioners Anthony Traficanti, Carol Rimedio-Righetti and David Ditzler will have to find a way of being heard above all the campaign clatter.

The public hearings they have scheduled on June 26 and 30 are a good start.

The first one at the Covelli Centre will begin at 5:30 p.m.; the second, at McMahon Hall at the Mill Creek Metroparks Farm in Canfield, will start at 6 p.m.

RESPONSIBILITY TO ATTEND

Mahoning County residents, especially those who believe that county government is a giant sponge simply soaking up public dollars, have a responsibility to attend one or both hearings.

They should give Traficanti, Rimedio-Righetti and Ditzler and other county officials the chance to make the case for renewing the 0.5- percent sales tax, and should be willing to voice any concerns they may have about the operation of government.

The give-and-take is beneficial to the private and public sectors.

Indeed, the loss of the issue in May seems to have been a teaching moment, given that the commissioners have decided to give up on the idea of making the tax permanent.

Last month’s loss is being chalked up for the most part to the fact that voters realized they would not have another say about the tax if it were renewed for a continuous period.

As Commissioner Rimedio-Righetti acknowledged after the primary, the people want county officials to come to them every so often to not only show how public dollars are being spent, but to explain what steps are being taken to cut costs.

Private-sector taxpayers have been forced to tighten their belts since the national economic recession began in late 2008, and they expect government to also go on a financial diet.

In the May primary, we urged passage of the sales-tax renewal issue despite our misgivings about changing the time period from five years to permanent. That’s because we strongly believe that without the revenue generated by this tax, which expires in September 2015, and the other 0.5-percent tax that’s on the books permanently, county government will be crippled.

Most of the money generated by the two taxes is dedicated to criminal justice, including the sheriff’s department and the courts.

Thus, one of the options the commissioners have proposed for the November general election is to dedicate the 0.5-percent tax to the sheriff’s, coroner’s and prosecutor’s offices and the 911 dispatch center.

The other option is to continue funneling the money into the general fund.

Both options would keep the tax on the books for five years.

ADDITIONAL TAX PROPOSED

There is a new twist the commissioners are proposing that will be spelled out in the public hearings and the subsequent campaign leading up to the general election.

They plan to seek an additional 0.25-percent sales tax that would be in effect for five years. That money would be used to keep providing county services at the current levels. There has been a loss of revenue through cuts by state government to the Local Government Fund, a loss of investment income and a decline in revenue as a result of a decrease in the number of federal prisoners housed in the county jail.

The additional tax will be a tough sell given that county residents are still reeling from the national economic recession.

County commissioners must guard against a possible voter backlash brought on by the additional tax affecting the renewal of the 0.5- percent sales tax.


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