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Mahoning County commissioners seeking sales tax renewal in May

By David Skolnick

Friday, February 15, 2019

It’s likely that many Mahoning County voters don’t know there’s a reason for them to go to the polls during the May 7 primary.

But there’s a countywide sales tax renewal on the ballot.

Democrats in Youngstown and Struthers are used to odd-year primaries even though turnout in those cities for those elections are usually low.

Now imagine what turnout is going to be countywide when voters in places like Ellsworth, Goshen, Milton, Austintown, Boardman, Canfield and other communities where they’re not used to casting ballots in odd-year primaries.

It could be under 20 percent, perhaps even lower than that.

The 0.75-percent, five-year sales and use renewal tax raises about $26 million for criminal justice services.

That makes up about 86 percent of the county criminal justice system – the sheriff’s, prosecutor’s and coroner’s offices, as well as dispatching services.

County commissioners told me the decision to put the issue on the May 7 primary ballot was if it fails they can try again during the Nov. 5 general election.

“We just thought we’d start early on this one because it’s a renewal,” said Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti. “It’s not an additional. This isn’t anything new. It affects everybody for safety. I don’t think anyone has an issue with this. It’s not something people haven’t been paying.”

Let me point out that other government entities and school districts that don’t have primaries put tax issues on the ballot during them.

On the Mahoning County ballot alone, there’s a 0.5-percent additional income tax for the West Branch school district, a 1-percent income tax for Springfield schools, and a 16.3-mill renewal levy for Campbell schools.

But a countywide issue on an odd-year primary ballot is unusual.

Commissioner Anthony Traficanti said the decision was made because the tax “is of importance. If something would happen to the tax in the primary, we can put it on in the general. It’s important to get this to the public early. This tax has sustained the operations of the justice system.”

Commissioner David Ditzler said: “It’s pretty standard to run it a year before it expires. We’re not doing it because turnout will be low and I don’t know how that will impact the election.”

Sheriff Jerry Greene said: “It’s certainly not like people got together in a smoke-filled room and decided it was a good idea to do this because no one is going to come out to vote [in the primary]. It was done to give us two bites at the apple. If it fails in May, we can put it back on in November.”

This tax has a short-lived, but interesting history.

During the May 6, 2014, election, the commissioners sought a permanent renewal of a 0.5-percent sales tax.

While the results were close, it failed.

It lost 16,834 to 16,303, a 1.6 percent margin of defeat. After the defeat, county Democratic Party Chairman David Betras said that “had there been a campaign, it would have passed.” He was referring to a minimal campaign effort on behalf of the tax.

The commissioners shook things up when they went back to voters with a sales tax on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot.

They got rid of the permanent part of the tax and made it a five-year tax.

They also increased the amount to 0.75 percent and dedicated it all to justice services.

County officials also had a much more active campaign for the tax.

It was another close vote, winning 34,232 to 32,920, a 2-percent margin of victory.

Notice how many more people voted in the general election than the primary even though turnout in the former was only 41.5 percent. Turnout in the primary was 21.9 percent.

Because of the 0.25-percent addition in 2014, there are different expiration dates for this tax. The 0.25 addition expires March 31, 2020, thus the urgency to get the sales tax passed by at least this November’s election while the 0.5 percent part doesn’t expire until Sept. 30, 2020.

Commissioners had two hearings on the sales tax before putting it on the ballot. There was very little public comment at either.

Commissioners plan to go to block watches and other community organizations as well as candidates forums to discuss the sales tax. Rimedio-Righetti said there is talk of a town-hall meeting.

Traficanti said: “I don’t know if it will be a big campaign for this. We have a committee. There could be a mailer. We’ll be out there publicly.”

But he acknowledged that “turnout will be very low.”