Trumbull commissioners risk alienating the public


As the front-page story today reveals, Trumbull County government is facing a budget crunch that could necessitate a sales-tax increase.

Such a move would require buy-in from the taxpayers, and therein lies the problem for the county commissioners. They may well have diminished the public’s trust with their recent private hearings on the 2017 budget. We use the word private because The Vindicator and other media were not given notice of the Nov. 21 and 22 meetings – as required by the Ohio Open Meetings Act.

The absence of such notification meant that this newspaper’s reporter who covers Trumbull County’s government like a blanket did not attend the budget hearings.

As a result, he was not privy to the arguments presented by Sheriff Thomas Altiere, who will be leaving office at the end of the year, Sheriff-elect Paul Monroe, Coroner Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk, Prosecutor Dennis Watkins and the heads of 20 other departments in support of their budget requests.

Our reporter also was not present to hear any discussion about the general fund projections as a result of the expected loss of sales-tax revenue.

Today’s news story about the 2017 general fund is based on a memo sent recently to the commissioners by county Auditor Adrian Biviano.

The story also reveals that Commissioner Frank Fuda is beginning to discuss the possibility of a quarter-percent increase in the sales tax that would generate an additional $6 million year.

But it’s the expected loss next year of $700,000 in Medicaid-related sales-tax revenue that has Auditor Biviano recommending a 5 percent reduction in the budgets of the general fund departments, including the sheriff’s department. The department operates the county jail and serves the courts. Sheriff’s deputies also patrol communities that do not have their own police departments.

But while storm clouds are gathering over the county’s operating budget, Commissioner Fuda and his colleagues, Daniel Polivka and Mauro Cantalamessa, did something dumb by having two days of hearings with department heads without the press being present.

We say “dumb” because the alternative is too disturbing to contemplate: that Fuda, Polivka and Cantalamessa intentionally did not notify the public through the media.

We, therefore, tend to believe Fuda when he says the office staff member who sends out announcements of the meetings of the board of commissioners made a mistake and that she apologized.

That may well be, but what’s disconcerting to us is that no one in attendance on Nov. 21 and 22 thought to ask, “Where’s The Vindicator?” After all, budget hearings at which department heads explain their requests and justify their spending priorities are the mainstay of this newspaper’s coverage of government.

IMPORTANCE OF HEARINGS TO PUBLIC

Such hearings not only reveal the mindset of officeholders, but also provide insight into the wages and benefits of public employees. With more than 70 percent of a public entity’s operating budget taken up by payroll, private-sector taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent.

It is true that Trumbull County isn’t alone in having to come to terms with a reduction in Medicaid-related sales tax.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has ruled that such tax cannot be applied to insurance companies under contract to cover Medicaid. As a result, all county governments in Ohio are bracing for revenue losses in 2017.

Trumbull County will lose $700,000 next year and $2.7 million in 2018 – unless state government intervenes and covers the shortfall.

But while county commissioners from around the state have been urging their senators and representatives to push for increased state funding, there is no indication out of Columbus that the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Republican Gov. John Kasich are willing to loosen the state’s purse strings.

With almost $2 billion in the state’s rainy-day fund, there’s no reason for Columbus not to consider helping county governments. However, Kasich has made it clear that the surplus in the state budget is an essential part of his tax- reduction plan to make Ohio more attractive to businesses.

Trumbull County commissioners cannot deal with next year’s budgetary challenges by hoping that the state will come through. Biviano’s recommendation of a 5 percent cut in each department’s budget must be a starting point.

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