ELYRIA — Avon Lake attorney Gerald Phillips on Wednesday sued Lorain County commissioners over their imposition of a 0.25 percent sales tax hike that went into effect Saturday.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of five county residents and one business, accuses the commissioners of illegally voting to raise the sales tax Dec. 14.
Phillips has been threatening the lawsuit since last month. He also said Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes refused his demand to file suit on behalf of the taxpayers to stop the collection of the sales tax.
Phillips, who demanded commissioners put the increase before voters in November before filing the lawsuit, also said he plans to launch a petition drive to force the tax issue onto the ballot.
The commissioners have said they didn’t intend to put the tax increase on the ballot, and Innes said Wednesday that he hadn’t rejected Phillips request for a lawsuit, but had asked him in a letter to provide more information and his legal reasoning.
“You forced the lawsuit, you forced the petition drive, and you further angered the taxpayers of Lorain County, who already were upset,” Phillips told the commissioners during their meeting Wednesday.
The lawsuit contends that commissioners violated Robert’s Rules of Order, which the commissioners use to govern how they run their meetings, when Commissioner Ted Kalo moved Dec. 14 for a vote on the sales tax increase, which is expected to generate roughly $10 million annually for county operations.
Commissioners Lori Kokoski and Matt Lundy had voted Dec. 7 to reject imposing the sales tax, but Kokoski said over the ensuing week it became clear to her just how damaging the cuts to county government would be without the sales tax increase, including layoffs of sheriff’s deputies.
Phillips argued in his lawsuit that since Kalo lost the first vote Dec. 7, he didn’t have the authority under Robert’s Rules of Order to make a motion to impose the sales tax. Phillips said that only Kokoski or Lundy, who voted against the increase both times, could make such a motion.
Kalo and Kokoski both voted in favor of the sales tax increase Dec. 14.
Innes said he reviewed the parliamentary procedures before Kalo made his motion Dec. 14 and believes there was nothing improper about it.
Phillips also argued that the commissioners must have violated Ohio’s public meetings laws by having conversations about the sales tax when out of the public eye. He said there were too many people at the Dec. 14 meeting with an interest in the sales tax for it not to have been discussed with other county officials because it wasn’t on the agenda for the meeting.
He also contends that the commissioners should have held a second round of public hearings before they voted on the increase. The commissioners held two such hearings prior to their first vote Dec. 7.
The commissioners largely declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday because they hadn’t read it, but Kokoski said she thinks the second vote was handled legally despite what Phillips has said.
“We’re listening to the advice of our legal counsel, not his legal counsel,” she said.
The lawsuit and the promised petition drive — which Innes said he is reviewing to determine if it’s legal — are the latest efforts by critics to derail the sales tax hike.
Opponents launched a petition drive to force the increase to the ballot after the commissioners approved it in December but fell short of gathering the valid signatures of 7,782 registered voters necessary.
Curtis Weems, one of that group’s leaders, is among those suing the commissioners and other county and state officials.
“The commissioners have exercised a gross abuse of power by unilaterally imposing the sales tax in spite of the fact 90 percent of the voters rejected it in November,” Weems wrote in a statement he read to the commissioners Wednesday.
Voters rejected a 0.25 percent sales tax increase that would have split about $10 million annually between county operations and an expanded public transit system in November. Official election returns from the county Board of Elections show that 74.2 percent of those who cast ballots voted against the increase compared with 25.8 percent who backed the measure.
Phillips, Weems and other opponents also argued after the meeting that the commissioners haven’t done enough to cut waste in county government.
“There was no austerity program,” Phillips said. “They didn’t even look at cost-cutting.”
In addition to seeking a judicial order ending the sales tax, Phillips also wants the case declared a class-action lawsuit and for county residents to be refunded the money that the county collects while the sales tax is in effect.
He said he’s not sure how the county would go about returning the money if the tax is declared illegal. He said the court could set up a claim system. Another possibility, he said, it for the money to be sent to vendors who could return the money to customers they know.
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