ELYRIA — Bitterly cold temperatures didn’t keep opponents of a 0.25 percent sales tax hike from going through with a planned rally against the increase outside the Lorain County Administration Building on Friday.
It also didn’t keep proponents of the increase, which would bring in nearly $10 million annually for county government operations, from staging a counterprotest.
The two sides mostly got along as they waved signs advocating their point of view, and Pastor Rick Young of Liberty Baptist Church in Elyria, who is against the tax, sang patriotic songs over a portable microphone system.
Protestors on each side sometimes ducked into the nearby government office building to warm up. A few even shook hands as they left the event.
Kirsten Penton Hill, one of the leaders of the anti-tax Citizens for a Better Lorain County, said she’s upset the county commissioners voted to impose an increase in December, just a month after voters rejected a sales tax hike that had appeared on the November ballot. Only 25.8 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of that increase, which would have split $10 million between county operations and improved public transportation.
“My issue is that they put it on the ballot for us to vote on, and three-quarters of voters said they didn’t want it,” Hill said as she urged people to sign a petition that would prevent the increase from going into effect in April and put it to a public vote in November.
Opponents need to gather the valid signatures of 7,782 registered voters by Friday to accomplish their goal.
Commissioners Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski voted to increase the county’s 6.5 percent sales tax, the lowest rate in the state, during a Dec. 14 meeting, citing the cuts that would be necessary to close a projected budget gap of between $2.4 million and $3 million this year. A week earlier Kokoski had joined Commissioner Matt Lundy in voting against the measure.
Lundy has said although the increase is needed he was bound by a 2014 campaign promise not to impose a sales tax hike. Kokoski initially had voted against the increase because she wanted the measure to pass unanimously.
Don Kovacs, president of the union representing county maintenance workers, said he and several other union members clocked out of work to help stage the counterprotest because they understand the need for the increase.
“This is about saving jobs. They cut money, they cut jobs,” Kovacs said.
He said the county hasn’t replaced all the workers who were let go during the height of the Great Recession, which means the county has been operating with fewer resources and people than in the past. He said the commissioners had little choice but to raise the sales tax to protect county services, including safety forces.
“They didn’t want to,” Kovacs said. “They had to.”
Several off-duty county Sheriff’s deputies also showed up to urge people not to sign the petition.
Deputy Chris Wohlever said although he doesn’t think he’d be among the dozen or so deputies Sheriff Phil Stammitti has warned would be laid off, he’s worried that cuts would shrink the number of deputies on patrol at any given time. That’s a safety issue not only for the deputies, but also residents.
It was a concern echoed by Brownhelm Township resident Greg Holmes, who showed up to support the deputies during the protest.
“Us people in the township are worried about our kids’ safety if this is not enacted,” Holmes said.
Ken George, of Avon, said he believes the commissioners should be able to deal with any budget problems by making cuts or selling off unused county resources — not by ignoring what voters have decided at the polls.
“Only two people made the decision for everyone in the county,” George said.
Ethlyn Kennedy, of North Ridgeville, said she thinks the commissioners are exaggerating the scope of the budget woes and could find ways other than raising the tax to deal with whatever problems exist.
“I believe they have it,” she said.
Citizens for a Better Lorain County’s Facebook page details when and where it is circulating petitions. Hill said anyone interested in helping can call or text her at (440) 201-2306.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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