Sales tax to fund county operations

Michael Lewis

On Tuesday, the Portage County Board of Commissioners will ask voters to approve a one-half percent sales and use tax increase in the hopes of balancing next year’s $2.3 million budget deficit.

If the levy passes, Portage County Auditor Janet Esposito said the county would receive more than $6 million, enough to sustain current operations. The sales tax is the county’s primary source of income.

If the levy fails, the county could face potential layoffs. Residents may also encounter reductions in some areas of service.

According to John Lehman, head of Commissioners’ Finance and Budget Information Office, if budget cuts occur, they will more than likely come from the sheriff’s department since it receives the lion’s share of the general fund.

“We have 18 townships in the county and only one of those counties has a police department,” Lehman said. “Besides Brimfield, the other 17 rely on the sheriff’s department, which is why his budget is over $10 million.

“Reductions might hit the sheriff’s office, which then might affect our policing ability to serve the townships,” Lehman said.

Commissioner Chuck Keiper agreed. All the legal systems, including the sheriff’s department and the courts, account for almost two-thirds of the budget. Keiper said that is where cuts will come from.

“It could result in a fight with the courts,” Keiper said. “They won’t operate with any less money than they have already.

“If we’re not successful negotiating with the judiciary, the cuts that are left would be sizably increased to everybody else,” he said. “There’s a tough philosophical conundrum when it comes to spending money. It’s a crazy situation.”

Life-long Kent resident Robert Wright said a loss of police officers or firefighters would be somewhat devastating to the community as a whole. Just last Saturday, Wright said someone allegedly kicked in his neighbor’s door.

“I would rather have a strength in the police force than to cut more personnel,” Wright said. “If it means paying more in taxes, then I don’t have a problem with that.”

In previous years, Ohio residents had been paying this one half of one percent, but in the last year, the state reduced its sales tax. Now state residents no longer pay it.

With the current 6.75 percent sales tax, residents would pay $6.75 on a $100 purchase. The increase would add an additional 50 cents to that purchase.

When the commissioners voted to increase the tax, Keiper voted against it. He did not oppose it because he thought it was a bad idea. He said he did not think the commissioners demonstrated enough cutbacks.

When he came on board 13 years ago, Keiper said the county did not have working personnel policies or functional business operations. The county no longer receives the same amount of state and federal support.

“Most of the cutbacks we made held the line,” Keiper said. “I thought the increase would be very challenging to sell.

“The truth is, if we don’t change our current growth patterns, predominately led by an increase in medical costs, we’ll be out of money in four or five years,” Keiper said.

Commissioner Christopher Smeiles said he supports the increase. Since Ohio residents used to pay this half of one percent, Smeiles said the increase would be a zero net gain compared to what people were paying.

“I do not believe it will reduce the buying power of anybody,” Smeiles said.

Households may need to wait longer to make larger purchases. Recent energy increases in utilities, fuel and natural gas have slowed the economy. Many families must also contend with increasing medical premiums.

“It’s very, very challenging times,” Lehman said. “The commissioners are spending lots of hours analyzing and deliberating how the 2006 budget will be balanced.”

Councilman Wayne Wilson of Ward 3 in Kent said he supports the increase. However, supporting a county levy becomes a “catch-22” when it comes to passing city levies.

“I have to think first for the city, but I’m hoping people can support all of them at the same time,” Wilson said. “The average family only has a certain size of pie and they can only split it up so much.”

Louise Linton of Ravenna normally does not pay attention to the sales tax. Now, she thinks it will make her poorer.

“I work hard for the little bit of money I get now,” Linton said. “It’s more than minimum wage, but it’s still not enough. If I had a kid, God forbid, I’d be living off the government.

“They want to raise the sales tax, but not minimum wage? Where’s the sense in that?” Linton asked. “Why make it so hard on me?”

If voters approve the increase, tax collection would take effect April 1, 2006.

Contact public affairs reporter Mike Lewis at [email protected].