By PETER H. MILLIKEN
The continuous renewal of Mahoning County’s half-percent sales tax failed by a 50.79 percent to 49.21 percent margin.
“I thought it would be close,” said David Ditzler, chairman of the county commissioners.
“I look at it as an opportunity, not a defeat. I look at it as an opportunity to come back in November with what I think the people are looking for, which is specific earmarks for the tax to be identified for certain uses,” he said.
“So, we come back and we look at identifying it specifically for criminal justice, for the prosecutor, the courts, and the sheriff’s department,” Ditzler said.
Ditzler proposed increasing the tax to be placed on the November ballot to a full 1 percent dedicated to the justice system.
A whole percent would bring in nearly $32 million of the justice system’s $40 million annual cost, he said.
The commissioners could place a sales tax on the November 2014 and May 2015 ballots. If at least a half percent would pass at either election, the county would lose no sales-tax revenue because the half percent that was on Tuesday’s ballot doesn’t expire until Sept. 30, 2015.
Ditzler said the commissioners and their budget director, Audrey Tillis, will need to examine whether any cutbacks in county government are necessary based on Tuesday’s loss.
“There’s probably a need for reductions just to balance the budget for next year, even with the sales tax,” still in effect, he said.
“It’s unfortunate that it failed. It was a renewal,” said Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti.
Righetti said she believes the commissioners should now consider earmarking a sales tax just for public safety. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to” put a sales tax on the Nov, 4 ballot in some form, she said.
“You can’t live on a half a percent. It will not work,” she said, referring to the other half percent that has been continuous since May 2007. Continuous means it has no stated expiration date.
“It was close, and, had there been a campaign, it would have passed,” observed David Betras, county Democratic Party chairman, referring to the minimal campaign effort on its behalf.
The tax defeated Tuesday brings $15.5 million in annual revenue to the county, which has a $50.2 million general fund budget for 2014.
Except for $1,050,000 going into the county’s debt service fund this year, the sales-tax revenue goes to the general fund, which is the county’s main operating fund. The general fund supports the county’s justice system, including the courts, jail, prosecutor’s and coroner’s offices and 911 dispatching center, board of elections and the central administration of county government.
The county commissioners had also considered seeking a quarter-percent additional sales tax on Tuesday’s ballot, but abandoned that idea in January.
Fearing voters would reject both the renewal and the new tax, they decided to place only the renewal on Tuesday’s ballot.
In a public hearing on the sales-tax renewal, county Auditor Michael V. Sciortino cited a warning from Standard & Poors that a loss of sales-tax revenue could jeopardize the stable financial outlook rating S&P has given the county.
Mahoning County’s total sales tax is 7 percent, with the first 5.75 percent going to the state, 1 percent to the county coffers and a quarter percent to the Western Reserve Transit Authority.
Of Ohio’s 88 counties, 50 exceed 7 percent; 15, including Mahoning, are at 7 percent; 19 are at 6.75 percent; and four are at 6.5 percent total sales tax.
For the 1 percent going to Mahoning County government, revenues grew 20.88 percent over five years since the bottom of the recession to $31,637,198 in 2013.