December 18, 2014

Elyria
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Commissioners may put levies on November ballot

ELYRIA — Lorain County commissioners said Wednesday that they won’t make an immediate decision whether to try again in November to pass levies backing Lorain County Transit and the Lorain County Crime Lab.

Levies for both measures were rejected by voters during Tuesday’s primary election.

County Administrator Jim Cordes said the levies might have better luck in the fall, which is expected to have a far higher turnout than the 14.75 percent of the county’s registered voters who showed up at the polls Tuesday.

“We’ve only asked 15 percent of the voters,” he said.

The Crime Lab levy won support in Avon, Elyria, Lorain and Oberlin, while the transit levy only racked up positive numbers in Elyria, Lorain and Oberlin, according to unofficial election returns from the county Board of Elections.

Cordes said he intends to ask the commissioners to take another stab at passing the transit levy, something he has long championed. He said the margin of defeat was slightly smaller than a year ago when voters also rejected a transit levy.

About 58 percent of voters cast ballots against transit this year compared with about 59 percent last year.

“It’s not a great number, but it’s not an insurmountable number,” Cordes said.

Levy backers who mounted a campaign to support the transit issue have said they are willing to try again.

County Commissioner Tom Williams, who had opposed putting either levy on the ballot in the primary, said he isn’t certain that property taxes are the way to go if the county wants to raise additional funding.

He said he thinks a sales tax increase would be a better way to raise the money because it would impact everyone, not just property owners. The commissioners have failed three times in recent years to convince voters to approve a sales tax hike.

“I believe a sales tax is a fairer tax…” he said after the meeting. “But I don’t believe we should do it at all this year.”

Commissioner Lori Kokoski said she thinks a sales tax might be an easier sell to voters because it could bring out supporters of transit, the Crime Lab and other areas of county government that have seen reductions over the past decade as the county has grappled with budget shortfalls. A 0.25 percent sales tax hike would generate roughly $7.5 million annually, money that Kokoski said also could be used to fund much-needed capital improvements on county buildings.

“We need the money anyway for our general fund purposes,” she said. “We’ve been running short for a long time.”

Whether the Crime Lab makes it to the ballot again in November depends on when an investigation into missing items at the county’s Adult Probation Department is completed and what the results of that probe are.

The commissioners said that although the investigation, which was launched earlier this year after allegations that Crime Lab Director Emmanuel de Leon might have been responsible for the missing items became public, has cleared de Leon of wrongdoing, the Probation Department remains under scrutiny.

The commissioners agreed last month to a proposal from Cordes to restructure the lab, which focuses on analyzing drug evidence collected during criminal investigations. Cordes has said he is looking into whether the Crime Lab can begin conducting drug tests on individuals, a service that was offered by the county’s Forensics Laboratory until it was closed earlier this year.

The Forensics Lab, like the Probation Department, falls within the control of the county’s General Division judges, while the Crime Lab is overseen by the commissioners.

Commissioner Ted Kalo said law enforcement continues to believe that the speed with which the Crime Lab can conduct drug tests makes the lab a critical component of the county’s justice system.

Cordes said even without the levy passing this month the Crime Lab can continue to operate because it already has a funding source in the form of an old levy it shares with the Lorain County Drug Task Force.

But he also said the lab costs more to run than that levy brings in. County Budget Director Lisa Hobart has said the Crime Lab cost $249,340 to operate in 2013, while the levy brought in $153,701 last year. The lab also had another $18,240 in miscellaneous revenue last year.

Cordes said depending on how fast the lab burns through its reserves — it had a carryover of $429,283 coming into 2014 — will determine if services need to be cut down the road. But he has also said money will need to be spent on expensive equipment in the future.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @BradDickenCT.