By Peter H. Milliken
Mahoning County residents got an October surprise recently in their mailboxes.
With two of the three Mahoning County commissioners facing re-election contests Nov. 8, the county has printed and mailed six-page newsletters to all county households with listed mailing addresses at taxpayer expense.
Some 110,250 copies of the newsletter were printed in color for $13,499, and the mailing was done at a cost of $17,397, both by City Printing of Youngstown.
Production and mailing costs were paid for by the county’s tax-supported main operating fund, known as its general fund.
Although the brochure, titled “Inside Mahoning County,” makes no reference to the election, portraits of county Commissioners Carol Rimedio-Righetti, Anthony Traficanti and David Ditzler adorn the first page of the glossy newsletter.
Several group photos that include the commissioners are contained on its inside pages.
Traficanti, a Democrat, faces Republican challenger Adam Rutushin in the Nov. 8 general election. Ditzler, also a Democrat, faces Republican challenger George Levendis.
“Their energy and resources are strictly focused on self-promotion and the preservation of their jobs,” Levendis said of the commissioners.
“This does not have anything to do with politics,” Rimedio-Righetti said of the timing of the newsletter.
The newsletter is being issued during the first full year of collection of the county’s justice system sales tax and in the spirit of transparency the commissioners promised the taxpayers, she added.
The current edition of the “Inside Mahoning County” newsletter is marked as “Issue 2.” However, “Issue 1” was published in October 2014 as a Vindicator insert and contained the ballot language during the successful 0.75 percent justice sales-tax campaign.
Another edition of the newsletter likely will be issued next fall, when no candidates for countywide office will be on the ballot, Rimedio-Righetti said.
Besides the commissioners, the newsletter depicts Judge Theresa Dellick, the Republican judge of the county’s juvenile court, who is unopposed for re-election this year, and Judge Beth Smith, the Democratic domestic relations court judge, who does not face re-election this year.
“Completing a newsletter was decided on before the commissioners knew that they had contested races,” with work on this edition having begun in 2015, said Audrey Tillis, executive director for the county commissioners.
“The goal is to update the citizens of Mahoning County on the general revenue fund and criminal and administrative justice fund, with a spotlight on specific departments,” she added.
To conserve funds, this issue was written and designed by herself and county staff, Tillis said.
“I wish I could say that I’m surprised, but I’m anything but surprised,” Levendis said of the timing of “Inside Mahoning County.”
“The citizens receive no newsletter for two years, but receive a self-promoting flier three weeks before elections, and it is paid for by Mahoning County taxpayers,” he added.
“It’s time for a change, and this is the kind of wasted selfish spending that I’ll spend my energy and resources fighting when I’m elected,” Levendis said.
Ditzler countered that the combined cost of printing and mailing this edition of the newsletter is a tiny fraction of the current combined annual county general and justice fund budgets totaling $60 million.
“If you’re going to run on fiscal responsibility, you need to have a little better knowledge of the budget, because, if this is the savings that you think is going to impact the budget, then you obviously don’t know the budget,” Ditzler said.
“This is just like the transparency of Open Checkbook,” because it shows taxpayers where their dollars are being spent, he said of the newsletter.
“This ‘newsletter’ is a perfect example of why we need new leadership in county government. We expect our county leaders to be better stewards of our tax dollars,” said Mark Munroe, county Republican chairman.
“When $30,000 in taxpayer funds are used for an obvious political purpose, it should come as no surprise when there is opposition to county sales taxes,” he added.
“Government works best when there are both Republicans and Democrats at the table. This November, there are two outstanding Republican candidates for commissioner. Voters will have the chance to bring much needed balance to government,” Munroe said.
The timing of the newsletter is raising eyebrows locally, but Paul M. Nick, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, said “it’s not really an ethics issue,” unless there is evidence of conflict of interest.
The newsletter contains a list of county office phone numbers and articles concerning the county courthouse restoration, new dog shelter construction, the county budget, 911 consolidation, juvenile and domestic relations courts and convention and visitors’ bureau.
However, the information the commissioners share about the restoration is not current, even though the newsletters were delivered to taxpayers last week. The restoration of the Mahoning County Courthouse has been delayed by the need to remove and replace unforeseen asbestos roofing discovered this fall in its statue pedestal, as The Vindicator also reported today.
The commissioners directed that the newsletter be produced annually, but 2016 is the first full year the sales tax devoted to the justice system is in effect, Tillis noted.
The current newsletter makes no mention of County Issue 1, the 2-mill, five-year real-estate-tax levy renewal for the county board of developmental disabilities, which is on the Nov. 8 ballot, because that board has its own separate funding sources, Tillis said.
“I can’t second-guess the commissioners and their motivation for this newsletter,” said county Auditor Ralph Meacham. “It is very informative.”
However, Meacham, who is not running for re-election this year, said he avoided printing and mailing costs when he issued last month the first edition of a quarterly online auditor’s office newsletter.
Meacham said his newsletter was produced by his staff on county time.
If the commissioners approve an expense, such as the cost of printing and mailing a newsletter, the law requires him to issue the check to pay for it, Meacham said.
“Not everyone has email” or a computer or smartphone, Rimedio-Righetti said, explaining why the commissioners decided to print and mail the newsletter to all county households.