The Mahoning County commissioners are exploring their options in the wake of the narrow defeat of the half-percent sales tax, which the commissioners offered on Tuesday’s ballot for continuous renewal.
“It was close, but it’s still a defeat. The taxpayers spoke, and we’ve got our work cut out for us to regroup and get our message back out there,” said Commissioner Anthony Traficanti.
The tax failed by a 50.79 percent to 49.21 percent margin.
“The taxpayers are the boss, and they tell us what we can and cannot do,” he added during Thursday’s commissioners’ meeting.
“I would be happy with going back to the voters and looking at the half-penny for a five-year period,” Traficanti said. “I think that’s what the voters would like to see. I think they want a say on how we’re spending the money, and it’s understandable.”
Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti said the sales tax suffered in this election from controversies over new school levies, which were defeated, and the anti-fracking proposal, which was defeated in Youngstown.
“I think that kind of impaired this a little bit,” said Righetti, a former county elections board.
Righetti said she was sure the commissioners would call the county’s elected and appointed officials together to “come up with new strategies, get more people on board and run a full campaign” for the sales tax.
As to whether the sales tax on the Nov. 4 ballot should be a half-percent or a full percent, Righetti said: “We’re really not sure where we’re going to go with that.”
“I didn’t hear one person complain to me that it was a problem being continuous,” as opposed to establishing an expiration date for the sales tax, said David Ditz-ler, chairman of the county commissioners.
The county already has a half-percent sales tax that has been continuous since May 2007.
“The safety of our community and our county warrants the sales tax that we have in place to support all those services to protect our homes and our families,” including the county sheriff’s department and the rest of the justice system, Ditzler said.
The sales tax that was defeated Tuesday won’t expire until Sept. 30, 2015, giving the commissioners this year’s Nov. 4 ballot and next year’s May primary to pass it without any revenue loss.
On election night, immediately after the tax was defeated, Ditzler said he favored placing a 1 percent sales tax on the November ballot and designating it for the county’s justice system.
He said, however, after the commissioners’ meeting the county might need only three-quarters of a percent.
“We need to fund the sheriff’s department on what it takes to fund them fully, whatever that number may be,” he said, adding that the commissioners need to discuss the matter with Audrey Tillis, their budget director, and other county officials.
“People believe that the safety of the community is important,” Ditzler said when asked why the voters, who defeated the current half-percent, would support a larger tax earmarked for the justice system.
If a 1 percent tax were to pass, it would raise the total sales tax going into the county’s coffers to 1.5 percent, which is the maximum permitted by state law.
Declines in state funding and investment income have made it impossible for the county to maintain its current spending on the two current half-percent sales taxes, which together raise nearly $32 million a year, Ditzler said.
The county’s general- fund budget for 2014 is $50.2 million.
Ditzler said he would not want to ask for less money than the county needs now.
“If you come back with the same thing [a half-percent renewal], then, a year from now, when you’re broke again, people are going to say: ‘What did you do?’” Ditzler explained.