ELYRIA — Opponents of a sales tax hike imposed by the Lorain County commissioners last year said Thursday they failed to gather enough signatures to prevent the increase from going into effect and put the issue to voters in November.
“Although the efforts of the many committee volunteers came up a little short, an extremely high percentage of registered Lorain County voters that were contacted were found to be very supportive of the petition drive,” Citizens for a Better Lorain County Government said in a news release. “Nearly everyone regardless of their party affiliation expressed much dissatisfaction with the commissioners and how they manage the county.”
Curtis Weems, one of the group’s leaders, declined to say how many signatures he and fellow volunteers gathered during their petition drive. In order to get the measure on the ballot, they needed to submit the valid signatures of 7,782 registered voters by today.
With that deadline not met, the 0.25 percent increase will go into effect in April, which will raise the county’s sales tax rate from 6.5 percent to 6.75 percent. The increase will generate nearly $10 million annually for county operations.
Commissioners Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski both said they were relieved that the petition drive fell short. Kokoski said she had been worried that the sales tax increase would face a same fate as a similar measure in 2007 when a petition effort got enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot and voters rejected a tax hike.
“I’m surprised that with Facebook and every other advantage they had this time compared to last time — I thought it would be much easier to get the signatures,” she said.
Former county Commissioner Tom Williams said the commissioners timed the imposition of the sales tax in such a way that it made it difficult for opponents to get the necessary signatures. The 30-day collection period was in the middle of winter and included both the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
“As a political strategy, it was brilliant,” Williams said. “Morally, I think it was unethical.”
Williams said opponents did their best.
“It was an uphill battle,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but I give everybody on that crew credit for trying to push something through during holidays, cold weather and a short timeframe.”
Weems said opponents also were hobbled in their efforts by confusion in county Auditor Craig Snodgrass’ office when they first tried to drop off their petitions Dec. 21.
Snodgrass’ staff accepted the petition but weren’t sure what to do with it.
The group returned several days later to drop off a slightly amended petition, but by then, Weems said, they’d lost additional time that would have made a difference. Still, he said, opponents did their best.
“For three weeks of work, I think we had a pretty strong effort,” he said.
Weems said a lot of people were upset with the commissioners’ decision to impose the sales tax a little more than a month after voters overwhelmingly rejected a 0.25 percent sales tax increase that would have seen $10 million split evenly between county operations and public transportation improvements.
He also said that Citizens for a Better Lorain County Government would have benefited from additional support from the Lorain County Republican Party.
“Other than Kirsten Penton Hill, we did not have a single officer of the Lorain County party that came to our aid,” Weems, who serves as Republican precinct committeeman, said. “This is something the Republican Party should have rallied around.”
Kokoski and Commissioner Matt Lundy originally voted against the sales tax increase Dec. 7, but Kokoski reversed herself a week later after she said she saw the damage that would be caused by the cuts the commissioners would need to make to close a roughly $3 million budget shortfall.
Lundy, who voted against the increase both times, has said he opposed imposing the hike because of a campaign promise he made when he ran against Williams in 2014. But he also has said the county needed the influx of additional money.
“The need was there. No one was crying wolf,” Lundy said, adding that he didn’t sign the petition.
County Sheriff Phil Stammitti said that he was glad the petition drive failed because he had feared the 20 percent cut to his personnel budget that the commissioners had been discussing would have meant he would have had to lay off 10 to 12 deputies.
Stammitti argued that the increase was necessary to keep the county operating properly and to allow the commissioners to make some necessary investments such as new patrol cars for deputies and much-needed repairs to the aging Lorain County Jail.
“Nobody wants to pay any more taxes, but we’re still going to be one of the lowest around with 6.75 percent,” he said.
County Prosecutor Dennis Will said he still needs to wait to see what his final budget will be, but he’s hopeful he’ll be able to fill several vacancies his office has put off filling while the future of the sales tax increase was in doubt.
“Now that it’s settled, I hope it brings more stability to the financial picture,” Will said.
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