Issue 7 Senior Levy fails

Kate Bigam

According to a poll conducted by the Issue 7 Senior Levy committee, 95 percent of voters supported Portage County’s senior services levy, which showed up on yesterday’s ballot.

But the results of yesterday’s election proved otherwise when nearly 80 percent of voted “no” on Issue 7.

The passing of the levy would have resulted in a 2-mill property tax, generating $6.7 million annually for five years. The money would have been used to improve senior services throughout Portage County, including home care coordination, protective services, and the construction of a community health center for low-income and uninsured seniors.

Throughout the campaign, Franklin Township resident Dave Vanderneut was an outspoken critic of Issue 7. Vanderneut, 64, headed Concerned Citizens of Portage County, a group of local seniors who opposed the levy.

Vanderneut said he has always voted for human services levies in the past, but after seeing the initial outline of the Issue 7 campaign, he became critical of this particular levy.

“It was so bad, so bogus, so full of holes … that I went, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this thing,'” he said.

One of his main concerns with Issue 7, Vanderneut said, was that it did not specify exactly what the generated money would fund. Instead, a levy control board would have been established to determine where to distribute the tax dollars.

“There was nothing on this ballot that said where the money would go other than to the commissioners,” he said.

Kent resident Jan Rusnack, also a member of Concerned Citizens of Portage County, said she thinks proponents of Issue 7 hoped it would not become a much-debated issue.

“They thought they were going to slide this through, and no one was going to pay any attention because it was some small issue,” she said. “But it was the only issue on my ballot.”

Although she opposed this particular levy, Rusnack said she feels Portage County does need to improve its senior services. Such a high-paying levy was unnecessary, however, because a senior citizens’ community center could have been built for far less than $6.7 million per year.

Furthermore, Rusnack said, the county should start by expanding the services offered at Townhall II’s free clinic and talking to local agencies about seniors’ needs.

“It’s not that we don’t need a senior levy – we do need one,” Rusnack said. “But it shouldn’t be a property tax, and it should be coming from us, from the grassroots, not from people who want to make money off us.”

Vanderneut agreed, calling $6.7 million per year too much money. He cited Green and Clark counties, whose populations are comparable to that of Portage County, as areas with acceptable senior services levies in place, which he said generate about $2 million per year.

“You look at this, and you say, ‘Wait a minute. Are we trying to be the Cadillac of senior citizens’ services in Ohio?'” Vanderneut said.

Leigh Herington, former state senator and co-chairman of the campaign committee for Citizens for Portage County Seniors, said he feels many voters were misinformed about where the money for the Issue 7 levy would go, citing a rumor that 80 percent of the tax money would go toward administration fees – a rumor he said was untrue.

“It’s obvious that the voters didn’t believe that they should be funding at that (2-mill) level, but this wasn’t about greed,” Herington said. “This was about helping seniors. This was about mapping out a plan that was very thoughtful, based on an assessment that was done that we could really make an impact on a lot of seniors in Portage County.”

Despite the levy’s failure, Herington said it’s become obvious that the county lacks sufficient support for senior citizens.

“What I hope will come out of this is that we’ve opened the debate about what the needs are and what’s necessary,” he said, “and I hope people will look at that in the future and solve those problems.”

Today, Vanderneut said, Concerned Citizens of Portage County will meet to discuss how to go about addressing the issue of senior care. He acknowledged that it may be difficult to convince voters support a future levy after encouraging them to vote against Issue 7.

However, he is hopeful that citizens’ support for local seniors will prevail.

“If we come up with a program we think is fair and good, I think … the same people who have been against this one would be for it,” Vanderneut said. “The people who were against the levy were not against senior services. They’re not.”

Contact public affairs reporter Kate Bigam at [email protected].