April 17, 2014

Elyria
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Opposition has edge on county tax issue

ELYRIA — With just a few weeks left before Election Day, the county commissioners have no organized campaign in place to convince voters the 0.25 percent sales tax hike they want passed is necessary.Instead, the commissioners are relying on word of mouth, meetings with various groups and discussing the issue at their weekly meetings whenever another county department asks for more money.

Unfortunately for the commissioners, opponents of the sales tax — who succeeded in gathering enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot after the commissioners passed it in March — will launch their campaign, including yard signs and at least one anti-tax rally, this week.

“If they’re wasting (the county’s) money, why should I trust them with more of it?” said Garry Seman, who’s heading up the anti-sales tax efforts of the Local Liberty Committee.

But the commissioners and other county officials insist that the money is needed to counter the loss of
$3.5 million in state funding, the added expense of a sixth general division judge and the rising costs of health care and other routine expenditures.

“We need additional dollars or there’s going to be significant repercussions,” Commissioner Betty Blair said.

The sales tax hike — which amounts to an additional 25 cents in taxes for every $100 spent — will generate about $7.4 million annually. The bulk of that will be used to offset the losses and rising costs, but it also will leave the commissioners with about $1.5 million that they had been divided over where to spend.

But Commissioner Ted Kalo said the commissioners are now united on a plan to spend that extra money on addressing safety issues and overcrowding at the county jail, possibly by building a temporary facility until a more permanent solution — such as a new jail — can be found.

If the sales tax doesn’t pass, Kalo said, he sees cuts to county services and layoffs as the only solution to the county’s budget woes.

Kalo also said the commissioners can’t spend county money on a campaign and didn’t put together a pro-sales tax committee that could have raised money.

Commissioner Lori Kokoski said in a lot of ways, she and her fellow commissioners are relying on the voters to recognize the need for the sales tax increase. She said she had initially opposed the tax hike until she examined the budget and talked to county departments and realized there was no other way.

“If you’re against the sales tax, tell us how to make it work with the money we have,” she said. “You tell us how to fix it and I’ll vote against (the increase).”

But Seman said the commissioners continue to spend money frivolously — one example he cited was $50,000 that was used to light a bridge in Lorain — and have resorted to threats to get voters to approve the sales tax.

“They’re waving cuts and layoffs up on a stick — that if you don’t pass it, then the world’s going to end,” he said. “But if it doesn’t pass, the world will keep turning.”

Blair said the tax increase has been endorsed by the Lorain County Deputies Association and the Lorain County Township Association.

“It shows that there are other people besides the commissioners who recognize the need for the sales tax,” she said.

Dave Noll, an adviser to the deputies union, said the deputies voted unanimously to back the sales tax at a meeting earlier this month because they recognize the need for more funding for the county.

“If we don’t get that tax, I’m sure layoffs will occur, but whether it’ll be deputies I don’t know,” he said.

If the tax fails, the commissioners said they will cut funding to the sheriff’s office last, but non-mandated services such as Lorain County Transit, which lost $500,000 in county funding this year, would be in danger of further cuts.

“I don’t know how we’re going to have services that are good for the community that aren’t mandated,” Kokoski said.

Whether the tax passes or not, the effort could come back to haunt Kalo and Kokoski — both of whom are up for re-election next year.

“I’m sure our opponents, whoever they might be, will definitely bring it up as an issue, but I don’t believe we’ve done anything that hasn’t been justified,” Kalo said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.