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COLUMBIANA CO. Tax hearings begin tonight

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Unless renewed, the county's 1-percent sales tax will expire this year.
LISBON -- Columbiana County residents get their first of two chances this evening to weigh in on a proposal to continue a 1-percent sales tax -- a tax that provides the local government with more than two-fifths of its revenue.
Voters in November defeated a bid to make the tax permanent by a 10-percentage-point margin. But commissioners said they hope voters will agree to continue it with a five-year time limit.
"That's the thing I heard after the election was over. They didn't want it to be permanent but would have agreed to five years," said Jim Hoppel, the chairman of the county commissioners. "They want to hold our feet to the fire, which is all right. They want to make sure we're spending the money wisely."
The hearings
The public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m., in the commissioners hearing room on the first floor of the county courthouse. The commissioners will hold the second hearing at 10 a.m. Feb. 16, during their regularly scheduled meeting, a day before the deadline for placing the issue on the May primary ballot.
The 1-percent sales tax expires at the end of this year. If voters agree to continue the tax, the county will continue to collect the money without any disruption.
Crucial decision
It is crucial, commissioners said, because the tax brings in $8.5 million to $9 million a year -- more than 40 percent of the county's nearly $18 million annual budget. For a county struggling with declining sales tax receipts and bracing for lost revenue in December as a result of the expiration of a half-percent sales tax later this year, the impact of a "no" vote in May would have large consequences.
"The county could come to about a complete standstill if that happened," said Commissioner Gary Williams.
Hoppel and Williams said a rejection of the 1-percent sales tax would force layoffs and dramatic cuts in services.
The county went 18 months without the tax in 1999 and 2000 after a rejection at the ballot box. Commissioners dealt with the loss of revenue through a combination of spending cuts, layoffs and borrowing.
"And all that has to be paid back," Hoppel said.
Columbiana County's leaders have struggled in recent years to convince residents that the tax is necessary.
Voter response
Voters have responded with skepticism. They eliminated the tax in May 1999 and rejected it again in November of that year. Then in March 2000, the voters turned down a request for a half-percent sales tax before commissioners voted to impose one.
Voters ultimately accepted a five-year, 1 percent sales tax in November 2000 in conjunction with the 2-mill property tax give-back.
Commissioners tried to make that tax permanent last November, arguing that it would provide stability and improve the county's bond rating, which would make it cheaper to borrow money.
"The public didn't agree with us," Hoppel said. "And the public rules."
The county this year has experienced budget cuts that have nothing to do with the 1-percent tax. The county commissioners slashed payroll by 20 percent to contend with revenue declines brought on by weak retail sales and the Aug. 31 expiration of the half-percent tax.
Although a lag will allow the county to receive revenue from that tax for a few months, it will get no revenue beginning in December.
If commissioners place the 1-percent levy on May's ballot and voters approve it, Hoppel and Williams said they will consider asking voters to renew the half-percent levy in November. However, that tax would not be collected again until April 2006 at the earliest.
But commissioners said they do not want to focus on the half-percent levy until after voters pass judgment on the 1-percent tax.
"We need the 1 percent before the half percent," Williams said.