Despite dire warnings, passage of sales tax renewal was a given

Don’t be fooled by the concerns expressed by Mahoning County officials before last week’s election that low voter turnout could hurt the 0.75-percent sales tax renewal for justice services.

While it was the county’s right to put the measure on the May 7 primary ballot, its officials knew that an overwhelming majority of voters would stay home.

For a sales-tax renewal, that almost always means passage.

That was the case with this tax, which was approved 64.18 percent to 35.82 percent.

If county officials were so worried about the tax’s passage, they would have had a campaign committee raise money to increase awareness of it. That money could have been used for commercials, billboards, mailers and other items that let people know about the issue.

They’ve done it during almost every other sales-tax vote.

Even other county agencies when they have tax issues on the ballot raise money to inform voters.

There wasn’t even an effort to go door-to-door asking for support of the tax that generates $25.1 million annually for the county justice system. That makes up the majority of the funding for the county sheriff, prosecutor and coroner’s offices, and for 911 dispatching services.

Public hearings

Instead, county officials had a couple of poorly-attended public hearings before putting the measure on the ballot and went to forums for candidates and issues urging its passage.

Timing played the main factor in having this issue on the ballot last week as it was a five-year renewal that was approved in the November 2014 election.

Of the 0.75 percent, 0.25 percent expires March 31, 2020, and the 0.5 percent part ends Sept. 30, 2020.

Because of that, county officials wanted to have as many chances to get it passed before it potentially expired.

There will be plenty more voters in the November general election than in last week’s primary.

But if county officials waited until then and it failed, they wouldn’t get another chance to put it on the ballot until the 2020 primary, which will likely be in March.

So I see the reason why it was on the primary ballot, but it still doesn’t sit well with me.

Let’s look at the numbers.

In last week’s primary, 17,237 people voted on the sales tax with turnout of 10.7 percent.

When it was on in November 2014, 67,152 people voted on the tax with 41.5-percent turnout.

And last week’s countywide election was almost as expensive as a presidential election.

The cost for the primary was about $500,000, according to Joyce Kale-Pesta, director of the county board of elections.

That came out to about $29 per vote.

Compare that to the Nov-ember 2018 general election in which the cost was less than $5.50 a vote.

As expected, turnout was abysmal, particularly in places that had nothing else on the ballot.

Again, many voters had no idea they were eligible to cast ballots.

The Vindicator wrote numerous articles and editorials about the countywide election and there was some coverage elsewhere. But many people are either not used to voting in odd-year primaries or had no interest in doing so because there was only the county tax renewal for them to consider.

The turnout figures are quite staggering.

Even though there were Democratic primaries for municipal court judge and four city council seats in Youngstown, turnout there was only 13.07 percent.

In Struthers, which had citywide Democratic primaries for mayor and council-at-large seats, turnout was 28.77 percent.

Highest turnout

Goshen, which normally doesn’t have odd-year primaries, had the highest turnout in the county at 32.53 percent. That was almost certainly because the township is part of the West Branch school district and voters came out for a school income-tax issue that failed.

Also, Beloit, also in the West Branch district, had turnout of 29.76 percent while Smith, which is mostly in that school district, had turnout of 28.56 percent.

In Campbell, with a school renewal levy on the ballot, turnout was 10.41 percent.

Turnout was less than 10 percent in every community with only the county sales tax on the ballot except Ellsworth, where it was 10.22 percent.

For example, Austintown turnout was 6.42 percent, Canfield Township turnout was 6.27 percent, and it was 5.23 percent in Lowellville.

You can’t blame county officials for putting the sales tax in front of voters knowing hardly anyone would turn out. However, spare me the worries that it wasn’t going to pass. There was never a question.