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Some tips regarding sales-tax issue

Published: Sun, May 11, 2014 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Todd Franko (Contact)

The Mahoning County sales tax was not rejected Tuesday, and $15 million in county revenues did not disappear.

In establishing those facts, therein lie the first pieces of the puzzle that county commissioners need to piece together in ensuring the county secures its $15 million next fall at the voting booth.

One piece of that puzzle is to not continually blame The Vindicator for reporting on the county’s poor spending habits.

A month ago, commissioner Dave Ditzler blamed The Vindicator for poor reporting on county spending. On Wednesday, he did so again the day after the permanent-proposal measure failed by 519 votes.

Repeating what did not work before is either stubbornness, arrogance or ignorance.

So let me help with a few tips to vary the thinking as commissioners ponder a new tax issue:

1) If you are mad at someone, take it to them, not to other media.

Ditzler has lashed out at us three times in five weeks. He was first part of a parade of county officials who took more than 30 minutes of county business time to yell at us. He then ran to 570 AM and did so again this week when he made it to the Ron Verb show.

We have Vindy Talk Radio — a great vehicle to talk in-depth on issues. Judge Krichbaum is fond of the format, as is Mayor McNally. Others in government leadership use it.

We twice made room for Ditzler to address our reporting directly, and twice he declined.

Avoiding us is not the best leadership. Running to another media outlet is, well, even less leaderlike, and citizens so easily keep score of such gimmicks.

2) Be honest with taxpayers. Here’s what Ditzler said on Verb’s show:

“I thought the misinformation that was put out there in The Vindicator was the prime source of reason why [people opposed it]. They put out there, you know, 10, 20, 30 percent raises. No general-fund employees got raises like that. I think that was the main reason why it went down in defeat.”

He says that, and sitting right next to him at meetings is Commissioner Righetti, who took a 10-percent pay hike over her 2012 wages. I can’t begin to understand more of his reasoning if even his most simple observation is wrong or spun.

3) Stop assuming taxpayers do not get it, and instead, listen to them.

Ditzler made various claims on Verb’s show, including one where Verb politely tried to convince him of another side.

Said Ditzler: “I really don’t think the permanent basis was a factor for its defeat.”

Verb tried a couple of ways to say that the feedback he got was that a five-year sales tax was fine, but permanent wasn’t. And Ditzler dismissed him.

Further, in addition to blaming us and dismissing Verb, Ditzler also attributed lost votes to the failed Austintown school bond issue, and to Republicans in the rural townships, and that citizens want to earmark specific taxes and not general.

That’s blaming a lot of disparate things. It comes off knee-jerky.

However, what comes off worse is to assume taxpayers just need to be taught more about how county spending works.

Ditzler told Verb: “We had people upset about potholes. They didn’t have an idea that roads are [funded] through the engineer’s office and through gas taxes.”

He offered that as an example of how people don’t know how county spending works, but earlier had lamented that taxpayers rejected a tax they’ve approved for 30 years.

You really want to believe people don’t know of something they’ve voted on for 30 years?

4) That leads me to the tip I shared with Sheriff Greene, who has the strongest credibility right now and no doubt will be the pretty face used to pass the next sales-tax measure.

He sent me a note Wednesday sarcastically “congratulating” me on the defeat. It was a polite poke, and we’re good like that in our chats. He said as much a month ago after our much-maligned story.

I repeated to him Wednesday my month-ago suggestion:

Stop wasting time trying to blame the Vindy and instead get the county leaders in line. You can suggest things like our reporting is misleading or rural folks hate taxes or people don’t understand a tax (they have voted on for 30 years).

None of it reflects taking measure of county actions.

Until that is done, such votes are always vulnerable to eyes like ours or the citizen complaints that initially contributed to our reporting.

In the potholes example, Ditzler offered to Verb lies another key puzzle piece:

Those taxpayers who complained about the potholes did not elect three people to be “county commissioners of the sales tax.”

They elected them to be “county commissioners.” Period.

If you are to ask for more money, be sure current funds are being spent wisely regardless of what tax pocket it comes out of.

If you can lash out at the Vindy on local radio or at county meetings, then you certainly can muster the courage to lash out at your peer officials who are spending irresponsibly.

Such leadership might even be found to be inspiring and endearing.

To simply dismiss it as “they’re misleading” and “they don’t know how the county works” is a mindset that will lead to further failures.

The plan from here should be:

Put only a five-year renewal on the ballot. It’s what people have voted on for 30 years and what Verb even said his friends would approve.

Do not put a public-safety issue on a ballot until there’s at least one year of solid shaping, crunching and selling such numbers. To do so this fall will not convince taxpayers that true homework was done.

And please, get ALL county services and leaders in line.

Sticking with the potholes episode — potholes are easy to fix, and that’s what citizens want. Western Reserve Road is still a wreck in places, as is North Lima Road. Pile on more county resources than just Greene’s inmates to rise up to this challenge.

That is a much better story to tell in voting season than “those are not sales- tax dollars you’re complaining about, those are taxes from ...”

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes e-mails about stories and our newspaper. E-mail him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.

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