April 17, 2014

Elyria
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County looks for places to cut after sales tax is voted down

ELYRIA — A day after Lorain County voters rejected keeping in place a 0.5 percentage point sales tax increase, county officials have begun the job of looking for places to cut.

Officials have estimated that $2 million to $4 million will need to be trimmed from the county’s 2010 budget. Those cuts will be on top of $6 million in cuts that were imposed by county commissioners this year that led to more than 75 county workers, including sheriff’s deputies, being laid off.

“We’re just taking a minute for what has happened to soak in, and then we have to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” said Commissioner Betty Blair.

The first place she said she would cut would be at the Lorain County Regional Airport, a luxury she believes the county can no longer afford.

Other possible cuts mentioned by officials have included Lorain County Transit and economic development, but the additional cuts could hit every county department, even the county justice system, which the sales tax increase — had it become permanent — would have funded.

A student crosses Third Street at West Avenue in Elyria on Wednesday with two campaign signs in the foreground: On left, the Elyria schools levy that did pass, and next to it one for the county sales tax increase that failed. (Photo by Chuck Humel, The Chronicle-Telegram.)

A student crosses Third Street at West Avenue in Elyria on Wednesday with two campaign signs in the foreground: On left, the Elyria schools levy that did pass, and next to it one for the county sales tax increase that failed. (Photo by Chuck Humel, The Chronicle-Telegram.)

“We’re going to provide the services we can afford,” county Administrator Jim Cordes said. “That’s what the voters told us they wanted.”

The sales tax took a beating throughout the county, with 57.7 percent, or 48,074 voters, opposing it, according to unofficial returns from the county Board of Elections. The tax garnered the support of 42.3 percent, or 35,302 voters.

It won enough support to pass only in three political jurisdictions in the county, with voters in Amherst Township, Lorain and Oberlin supporting the measure.

In Amherst Township, that support was narrow, with 842 residents voting in favor of keeping the sales tax, while 839 voters cast ballots opposing it. Voters in every other township rejected keeping the sales tax in place beyond April 2010.

Commissioner Ted Kalo said he was surprised that township residents didn’t back the sales tax because the commissioners fund the county Sheriff’s Office.

“I would think that the townships, in light of the loss of their police services, which the deputies provide, would have supported it,” Kalo said.

Kalo said supporters of the tax ran a good campaign, knocking on doors, making phone calls, putting up billboards and sending out mailers to voters. The committee supporting Issue 4 raised and spent around $140,000 on the effort, Cordes said.

The work paid off in Lorain, where sheriff’s deputies and other county workers pounded the pavement to drum up support in the closing days of the campaign, Kalo said. According to the election returns, 6,733 Lorain voters cast ballots in favor the tax compared to the 6,700 who voted against it.

Kalo said he wasn’t surprised that the measure was heavily rejected in North Ridgeville, where voters were nearly 2-to-1 against the sales tax, and in Elyria.

With a turnout of about 42.2 percent throughout the county, far more voters cast ballots than anyone expected, Kalo said. That worked against supporters of the sales tax, especially in Elyria, where voters rejected a 0.5 percentage point income tax increase.

There was simply too much antipathy against the income tax in Elyria for the sales tax to survive, even though the number of voters casting ballots for the sales tax was slightly higher than those backing the income tax, Kalo said.

Meanwhile, county officials are gearing up to deal with additional cuts. County Sheriff Phil Stammitti, who co-chaired the committee pushing the sales tax, said he fears he could lose additional deputies and may have to close a wing of the jail.

That could mean between 25 and 40 inmates could be released from the jail, he said. The jail has an average daily population of 445 inmates, he said.

While violent offenders wouldn’t be among those released, Stammitti said he doesn’t relish the idea of releasing any prisoner, but he may have no choice.

“We’re not leaving anything off the table,” he said.

Dave Noll, an adviser to the Lorain County Deputies Association, said the deputies are worried as well, particularly that the road patrol in the townships could face additional cuts. He said he hopes the commissioners will avoid cutting any more from Stammitti’s budget.

“I don’t think they could cut him anymore,” he said. “The road patrol is skeletal right now.”

If his budget does get reduced, Stammitti said he will have to take a hard look at partnering with the townships to find a way to fund the road patrol. He said he simply can’t leave the townships without police protection.

“We’ve got to have some law enforcement to respond to certain things,” he said.

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