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Published: Monday, 3/21/2005

Shifting the burden

It's getting to be a biennial ritual in Ohio. The state runs into fiscal problems and chooses to bail itself out by reducing the amount of tax revenue it returns to local governments.

Such action may provide a temporary fix for the state, but it only transfers the problem, in this case to cities, counties, townships, and public libraries.

That's no solution at all because the state's amorphous "money woes" are quickly translated at the local level into specific cuts in public services, including the layoff of police and firefighters.

This year, as Gov. Bob Taft and the General Assembly work to erase a projected $5 billion budget deficit, cuts from the state's local government fund allotment are proposed at 20 percent for cities and counties, 10 percent for townships and villages, and 5 percent for public libraries.

For the City of Toledo, facing its own budget problems, the 20 percent cut would mean a loss of $3.6 million - the equivalent of 46 employees.

Mayor Jack Ford, who last week went to Columbus to lobby lawmakers to restore the cuts, says most of those laid off would have to come from safety forces. The city, which recently went through some fiscal contortions to avoid layoffs, already has cut pretty much what it can.

The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, which gets roughly half of its $35 million annual budget from state income tax revenue, would lose a total of $1.7 million this year and next due to its 5 percent cut. How the library system would deal with the loss is unclear, but a good bet is that it would be forced to cut its acquisition of popular books, magazines, tapes, CDs, and DVDs, or perhaps shorten hours at some of its 18 branches.

Shifting the burden of state shortfalls downward has been a feature of the budget process every two years since the late 1990s. State allotments to local governments, which come from sales, income, corporate, utility, and even electricity taxes, have been frozen since 2001.

Public libraries, funded from state income tax revenue, have been particularly hurt. They once got 6.3 percent of income tax revenues; now they get 5.7 percent and their shares have been frozen, too.

All told, $340 million that was supposed to be returned to local governments and libraries by the state in the past four years now is being spent elsewhere. That's a significant shift in the burden of paying for local services.

And even as those cuts could mean fewer cops on the beat or books on the library shelf, most Ohioans probably would be surprised to learn that overall state spending is projected in the governor's two-year "austerity" budget to go up by 1.1 percent the first year and 2.3 percent the second year.

Balancing governmental budgets is a painful process, especially in Ohio, which still lies in the shadow of the last economic recession. The legislature cannot be blamed for doing its job; by law, the state's books must be balanced, and this newspaper has been among the voices calling for both lower taxes and lower spending.

Even so, lawmakers can - and should - find a more equitable formula for returning tax revenue to local governments. After all, the money all comes from the same source - taxpayers.



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