The county commissioners had hoped this time would be different, offering to roll back 1.4 mills of inside millage, essentially an unvoted property tax, if voters approved raising the sales tax by 0.5 percent for the next three years. Had it passed, the county would have brought in roughly $8.3 million more annually.
But the effort took a drubbing, with 36,788 voters, or 66 percent, casting ballots against the measure. According to unofficial election returns from the county Board of Elections, the increase had the support of 18,975 voters, or 34 percent.
The commissioners had argued that the increase was necessary to deal with a projected budget deficit of between $4 million and $6 million next year. They also had hoped to use the money to fund capital improvements, including updating the fleet of cruisers for sheriff’s deputies, that have been delayed by the county’s recent budget woes.
Commissioners Ted Kalo and Tom Williams said the effort to pass the tax hike was hampered by revelations that former county Auditor Mark Stewart was paid out $18,080 in unused sick time after returning to work for four hours in April for county Auditor Craig Snodgrass.
Although the county later determined that Stewart was only entitled to $4,520 of that money and the former auditor agreed to return the money he shouldn’t have received, Kalo and Williams said the damage was done.
“It’s no surprise,” Williams said. “We kind of knew going into it with everything that happened with Craig Snodgrass paying out that money to a former official that would hurt us.”
Kalo said that the commissioners had originally planned to hold a fundraiser and mount a small campaign to convince voters to pass the tax hike, but they scrapped the plan after the scandal surrounding Stewart’s payout.
“It cast a bad light on county government and it hampered our ability to raise dollars,” Kalo said.
Now that the voters have rejected the levy, Kalo and Williams said they will have to make hard decisions about where to cut.
“We either create revenues or reduce costs,” Williams said.
Kalo estimated that the commissioners will need to slash between $2.5 million and $3 million next year to balance the budget. That’s less than the commissioners had feared, but he said that’s only because current sales tax collections are up slightly and the county has pulled back on some expenditures this year.
There’s also another option.
The commissioners could raise the sales tax rate on their own as an emergency, although Williams said he won’t vote for that.
Kalo and Commissioner Lori Kokoski also could theoretically put the issue on without Williams, although that would automatically send it to the polls.
But Kalo said he doesn’t think only two commissioners should be putting on a sales tax while another stands back and votes against it.