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Sales tax hike opponents must wait until next week to get signatures

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ELYRIA — County residents hoping to stop a 0.25 percent sales tax increase from going into effect won’t be able to collect signatures for a petition to put the measure on the ballot until next week.

Curtis Weems, who is part of Citizens for a Better Lorain County, said Thursday his organization can’t legally begin collecting signatures until copies of the petition have been turned in to both county Auditor Craig Snodgrass’ office and the Lorain County Board of Elections.

He said that won’t happen until Tuesday because of slight changes that need to be made to the language of the petitions before they can be submitted and because county offices are closed today and Monday for the Christmas holiday.

Weems and others turned in the petition to Snodgrass’ staff Wednesday, but he said that paperwork needs to be modified.

It was also unclear to county officials Wednesday what the group needed to do and where exactly the petitions needed to be submitted. Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes confirmed Thursday that copies need to go to both Snodgrass and the elections board.

Weems said the delay is unfortunate but unavoidable.

“It just shortens the number of days,” he said. “We’ll have to work like crazy to get the number of signatures we need.”

Opponents of the sales tax, which the county commissioners voted to impose last week, have until Jan. 13 to gather the valid signatures of 7,782 registered voters to get a referendum on the November ballot.

If the petition drive fails to reach that threshold, the sales tax increase will go into effect in April and is expected to generate a little less than $10 million annually.

Commissioners Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski voted to impose the sales tax hike during a Dec. 14 meeting, citing large-scale cuts they said would need to be made to county services, including the Sheriff’s Office, if they didn’t generate more revenue.

County officials are projecting a $2.4 million to $3 million budget gap in 2017 without the additional money, although they also plan to spend some of the hoped-for sales tax money on capital improvements that have been delayed or paid for with credit because of the county’s budget problems.

Kokoski had originally joined with Commissioner Matt Lundy to vote against imposing the sales tax increase Dec. 7 but has said she changed her mind after seeing how devastating the necessary cuts would be to county government. The commissioners have also argued that Lorain County’s sales tax rate of 6.5 percent is the lowest in the state.

Former county Commissioner Tom Williams said Thursday that he’s also trying to find errors in how the commissioners held hearings and voted upon imposing the increase in the hopes of having it declared invalid.

He said if he’s successful, the commissioners would be able to vote again to impose the increase, but it would give opponents more time to gather signatures.

“We’ll let that other group try to get the signatures and I’ll look at seeing if I can stop them based on a technicality,” Williams said.

Williams, Weems and other opponents have argued that the commissioners could deal with the budget shortfall by taking pay cuts to their salaries, consolidating some county operations and privatizing others.

The commissioners have said that’s not possible given the cuts they made during the height of the Great Recession.

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



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