A 0.25 percent sales tax hike was resoundingly rejected by voters last month, but Lorain County commissioners are considering imposing it anyway to plug a projected $5.1 million deficit.
The increase, which was defeated by a 74 percent to 26 percent margin at the polls, would raise about $9.5 million annually and begin in April. At 6.5 percent, Lorain County is tied with three other Ohio counties for the lowest sales tax in the state.
Commissioners, who may decide at a public hearing Wednesday, are also considering a 0.50 percent hike. It would raise about $19 million annually. They are also considering asking for another vote on a hike in November or increasing the tax and letting voters decide in November whether to keep it.
Commissioners at a public hearing Friday stressed they are reluctant to go against the will of the voters but have few alternatives. They noted that 5.75 percent of the revenue collected from the sales tax goes to the state. Commissioner Ted Kalo said that translates to about $210 million of the $240 million raised annually going to the state.
“We’ve been very frugal but costs do go up,” he said. “We’re talking about a standstill of government to try to get to these budget numbers.”
In response to the Great Recession, the number of full-time county employees was cut from 2,140 in 2008 to 1,727 at the end of last year. Kalo noted up to 74 percent of county costs are mandated, such as money for the courts and veterans services.
The Democratic commissioners were highly critical of Republican Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-majority legislature’s tax cuts. Since Kasich took office in 2011 through last year, the wealthiest one percent of Ohioans received an average annual income tax cut of $17,618, according to the Institution on Taxation and Economic Policy. The bottom 20 percent have received an average annual increase of about $17.
While the rich are paying less, state taxpayer aid to the county has been cut from about $4.8 million in 2011 to about $2.8 million this year. While the legislature cut aid to local governments, the state in July deposited $29.5 million into Ohio’s Rainy Day Fund, adding to Ohio’s approximately $2 billion surplus.
“The harsh reality is that Columbus has abandoned us,” said commissioner Matt Lundy, a former state representative from Elyria. “The (surplus) money needs to come back. That’s a big reason why we’re in the position were in.”
Lundy, Kalo, and commissioner Lori Kokoski said the Lorain County prosecutor’s office and the sheriff’s deputies can’t afford cuts as they try to deal with the county heroin epidemic. Through October, there have been 100 fatal overdoses, according to the Lorain County coroner’s office. There were 65 last year.
This year’s fatal overdoses include Wellington resident Joseph Boden, who died at the Lorain County Jail of a fentanyl overdose. Deaths from fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller 50 times more potent than heroin, have spiked in the county and the rest of Ohio.
Sheriff Phil Stammitti said the jail, which opened in 1977 and had an addition in 1998, is aging and overcrowded. It houses an average of 420 inmates per day, has an $18.5 million annual budget, and needs security upgrades to prevent drugs from being smuggled in and to keep inmates and staff safe, he said.
Stammitti said the sheriff’s office, which has 237 employees — including 52 deputies — and a $5.8 million annual budget, hasn’t fully recovered from cuts made in 2008. Stammitti said much of his officers’ time is spent on drug investigations or crime related to fentanyl, heroin, and fentanyl-laced heroin.
However, Stammitti said police cannot arrest their way out of the problem. While voters last month rejected a levy that would have paid for more drug treatment in the county, Stammitti said it’s needed.
“I had a family member that was hooked on this stuff. Nobody is immune,” he said. “I’ve never seen it this bad.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.