ELYRIA — Opponents of the 0.25 percent sales tax hike the Lorain County commissioners voted to impose last week have completed their petition, but aren’t sure whether they can begin gathering signatures.
Several members of the group, which calls itself Citizens for a Better Lorain County, showed up at county Auditor Craig Snodgrass’ office Wednesday. They had hoped to have their petition reviewed and certified, but Snodgrass’ staff told them they knew nothing about it.
Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes said he doesn’t believe the petitions to get the measure on an upcoming ballot require a review before they are circulated, but he plans to review the law to determine if that’s indeed the case.
Curtis Weems, one of the group’s leaders, said they were told by others, including former county Commissioner Tom Williams and former Amherst City Councilman Nick Brusky, who led a similar drive in 2007, that a review was necessary.
The group has until Jan. 13 to gather the valid signatures of 7,782 registered voters to place a referendum on the ballot, otherwise the increase, which will bring in nearly $10 million annually, will go into effect in April.
A news release announcing the delivery of the petition to Snodgrass’ office said the plan was to put the measure on the May primary ballot, but county Board of Elections Director Paul Adams said that can’t happen in an odd-year primary because there’s no guarantee all the polling places in the county will be open.
In odd years, he said, referendums on sales tax increases must go on the November ballot.
Commissioners Lori Kokoski and Matt Lundy initially voted against raising the sales tax at a Dec. 7 meeting, but Kokoski reversed herself at a Dec. 14 meeting and joined Commissioner Ted Kalo in voting to impose the sales tax. Lundy has said a promise he made during his 2014 election campaign prevented him from also voting to impose the increase, although he has said the need for the increase is real.
Kalo said after years of rejection at the ballot box, the commissioners had no choice but to raise the sales tax to make sure the county doesn’t suffer from massive cuts.
“We’ve done what we need to do to keep operating county government,” he said.
But Weems and other critics argue that the commissioners are ignoring the will of the voters, who resoundingly rejected a 0.25 percent sales tax hike in November. The money from that failed ballot initiative would have been split evenly between county operations and improving public transportation in the county.
“The county is badly mismanaged fiscally,” Weems said. “The commissioners, they do not understand how to manage departments, budgets or finances.”
The news release from Citizens for a Better Lorain County said the commissioners could resolve their budget problems by cutting their salaries, selling unused land and equipment, consolidating programs and privatizing some services.
For instance, Weems suggested that the county could privatize the county’s dog kennel, but Kalo countered that the kennel is funded through the sale of dog licenses, not through the county’s general fund where the budget problems are.
Kalo said if opponents are able to get the measure on the ballot, he and his fellow commissioners will have no choice but to implement cuts. That would include cuts to the offices of county Prosecutor Dennis Will and Sheriff Phil Stammitti.
The sheriff has urged residents not to sign the petition and warned that the kinds of cuts the commissioners are considering will mean he will have to lay off 10 to 12 of his 52 deputies.
The county’s 2016 general fund budget is a little less than $60 million, and county officials expect to carry over about $5.2 million into 2017. Budget requests for 2017 total nearly $62 million, but the commissioners have frozen budgets at the 2016 level until they know whether the sales tax hike will go into effect in April.
The group opposing the increase also said in its news release that it would be holding a rally outside the Lorain County Administration Building in downtown Elyria to gather signatures but hasn’t finalized a time or date for that event.
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