County seeks to renew justice tax for another five years
No increase sought by commissioners
By Justin Dennis
Mahoning County voters can choose to continue funding the county criminal justice system through a sales tax levy this May.
County commissioners have set two public hearings on the county’s 0.75-percent justice sales tax levy, which will come up for another five-year renewal on the May primary ballot: 10:30 a.m. Monday in the commissioners’ board hearing room on the bottom level of the Mahoning County Courthouse, 120 Market St., and 5:30 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Boardman Township Government Center, 8299 Market St.
The measure does not seek an increase to the tax. Currently, consumers pay 75 cents on every $100 spent in the county on sales tax-applicable goods and services. Necessities such as most foods and prescription drugs are not taxed.
“It more hits your discretionary money ... which makes it more of a fairer tax,” said Audrey Tillis, county commissioners’ executive director. “It also taxes those individuals who come into our county to buy.”
The tax has generated more than $25 million annually, which is the entirety of the county’s criminal justice fund, which funds the sheriff, prosecutor and coroner offices, as well as dispatching services. That’s why county Sheriff Jerry Greene said its passage is “critical.”
“The criminal justice sales tax in and of itself is our entire funding,” he said. “It literally is all or nothing.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is – this needs to be renewed. We are very confident that we have done right in the past five years by the taxpayers.”
The loss of the state’s Local Government Fund and a “piggybacked” sales tax on Medicaid-managed care organizations – 60 percent of which went into the criminal justice fund – account for about $10 million lost from the county’s annual budget, said Maj. William Cappabianca of the sheriff’s office.
Total sales tax levied by Mahoning County is 1.25 percent, including the 0.75 percent for the criminal justice fund. That’s also paired with the state’s 5.75 percent at the cash register.
Without the justice fund tax, the county would go on fiscal watch almost immediately, Tillis said, with nonmandated services slashed to meet state minimum standards, the largest of which is the county jail.
“We got all our chips in here. We’re all in,” Cappabianca said. “We’re hoping that [with] our work and what we’ve done over the past 41/2 years that they’re going to support us with another renewal.”
Since its formation three years ago, the county’s human-trafficking task force has resulted in nearly 100 arrests, Greene said. The office also has been “especially successful” in targeting pedophiles online through human-trafficking and child-pornography cases and rescued at least 20 trafficked juveniles.
Deputy sheriffs are also dedicated full time to several other task forces, including the Mahoning Valley Drug Task Force, overseen by Greene’s office; the DEA; the U.S. Marshals; and the FBI. Those forces are responsible for long-term, “intense” investigations into gang activity and drug trafficking in the area.
Since the justice tax increase, the sheriff’s office also has established a quick-response team, which is dispatched to heroin overdose emergencies and points drug users toward help, dampening the “trickle down” effect drug abuse has on crime.
“At the end of the day, without a stable foundation of a budget, none of this would be possible because we would have specific Ohio Revised Code mandates that the sheriff would have to staff,” Cappabianca said. “We would not have the ability to be as proactive as the sheriff has been. ... It’s all part of the bigger picture.”
Voters narrowly approved a five-year renewal and 0.25 percent increase of the justice tax by only 1,322 votes on the 2014 general election ballot, according to the county board of elections – about 51 percent to 49 percent. Voter turnout that year was 41.5 percent, which board IT Manager Chris Rakocy said was “a little low” compared with the 52 percent turnout for the 2018 general election.
Previously, the justice fund was supported by two half-cent levies and other general-fund monies.