Is an extra 25 cents for every $100 in sales tax a price worth paying to keep Lorain County’s government whole?
Voters may get to answer that question in November. A petition drive is underway for a ballot initiative to rescind the quarter percent increase.
The increase, which would raise an additional $9.5 million annually, would boost the county sales tax from 6.5 percent to 6.75 percent. The state keeps 5.75 percent of the tax.
County commissioners imposed the increase Dec. 14 to eliminate a $5 million deficit and avoid across-the board cuts that would’ve included laying off Lorain County sheriff’s deputies and county assistant prosecutors as well as layoffs in the auditor and county recorder offices.
Commissioners Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski voted yes. Commissioner Matt Lundy voted no, citing a 2014 election year promise to voters not to impose a tax.
The approval came after voters in November rejected the increase by a 74 percent to 26 percent margin. Voters haven’t approved an increase in more than 20 years.
Petition organizers have until Jan. 13 to gather at least 7,782 signatures — 1/10th of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election — by Jan. 13, said Paul Adams, Lorain County Board of Elections director.
If the signatures are validated, the increase, scheduled to take effect April 1, would be put on hold until voters decide. The layoffs would likely go ahead.
The drive is being done by Citizens for a Better Lorain County Government, a group formed by residents who believe the commissioners are thwarting the will of the majority of voters.
“You asked the people. They said no. Then you came back and passed it anyway,” group member Kirsten Hill said. “Why’d you ask?”
Hill, owner of Amherst-based Penton’s Farm Market, said she’s gathered about 30 signatures from customers. They include Barbara Kantola of Amherst Township.
Kantola said commissioners need to make a better case in November for why they need the increase. She said people on fixed incomes, such as elderly people relying on Social Security, are reluctant to pay more taxes. “We have a lot of poor areas here in Lorain County,” she said.
Hill and Kantola argued that there is room for cuts in the approximately $56 million budget without endangering public safety or reducing important services.
But commissioners say they have a revenue problem rather than a spending problem. They say revenue plummeted due to hundreds of layoffs in Lorain in 2015 and the county never fully recovered from the Great Recession.
The county workforce has decreased about 19 percent to roughly 1,700 workers since the recession hit in 2008. Annual state taxpayer aid has dropped from about $4.8 million in 2011 to $2.8 million last year. Annual interest income has shrunk from about $8 million before the recession to $1 million last year.
Kantola compared county budgeting to cutting a household budget, but households often do deficit spending such as car and college loans, credit card payments, and mortgages. Kalo said commissioners have tried to to convince residents that an increase is desperately needed, but tax increases are always a hard sell and county budgets are extremely complicated.
He said some voters may not realize some spending is mandated, such as for the courts or veteran services, and that most of the sales tax is collected by the state.
Of the 0.75 percent that the county gets, 0.50 percent goes to the general fund and 0.25 percent goes to the Lorain County Jail. The jail has a separate tax that raises about $9 million annually but needs an additional $4.5 million annually from the general fund.
Despite being the ninth most populated county in the state, Lorain County is tied with four others for having the lowest sales tax in Ohio. Kalo noted neighboring Cuyahoga County has an 8 percent sales tax while Huron County’s is 7.25 percent, allowing commissioners there to provide additional services.
Besides eliminating the deficit, the increase would be spent on a variety of needs, including repairs to the aging jail, new cruisers for the sheriff’s office, and updates to the antiquated county records department.
“There’s always room for cuts,” Kalo said. “It just depends on what services you want to have and not have.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Evan Goodenow | Civitas Media Kirsten Hill, onwer of Penton’s Farm Market in Amherst, is a member of Citizens for Better Lorain County Government. The group is trying to block a quarter-percent county sales tax hike with a petition drive for a ballot initiative.
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