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Published: Wednesday, 10/19/2005

Hancock County citizen panel speaks out against tax

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

FINDLAY - A loose-knit citizens' group that advocates lower taxes yesterday delivered its official position opposing the proposed five-year, 0.25 percent sales tax increase to the Hancock County commissioners.

Hancock County Concerned Citizens, which supported a two-year version of the same tax request in 2003, says it does not believe the county has done enough to cut costs and look for ways to collaborate with city government since voters approved the temporary tax two years ago.

The Findlay-Hancock County Chamber of Commerce sent a similar message to commissioners last week.

County officials insist the tax - and the approximately $2.5 million it would generate annually for the criminal justice system - is vital to the county's financial well-being. Voters will decide the issue Nov. 8.

"The county does need this for operations," Commissioner Emily Walton said. "One of the things that needs to be understood is that if it passes in November, we will not receive any dollars from it until July of '06. If we wait until

May of '06 to put it on the ballot, we would not receive dollars until January of '07."

Both groups say the county's higher-than-usual carryover balance means the county would not be in trouble if it did not get the sales tax approved at this time.

They also have said the county ought to hold off in asking for any new tax dollars until next year when the results of Findlay Mayor Tony Iriti's "community visioning" process are announced. The visioning committee has been working to identify and prioritize needs in the community.

"We're not saying never ever ever, we're just saying wait a minute. We have enough of a carryover to get through. It does not need to be on the November ballot," said Maile Doyle, a member of Concerned Citizens.

She said the group believes the county needs to look at cooperative efforts with the city and townships to reduce spending and lower, not raise, taxes.

The chamber of commerce said in its statement that it believes "additional efficiencies may be realized through streamlined operations, spending reductions as well as cooperative relationships among government at all levels."

Ms. Walton and other elected officials challenged the groups to be more specific.

"What I can best say about those allegations is they are very vague and undefined and impossible to respond to," said Hancock County Common Pleas Court Judge Reginald Routson. "If we had more specific concerns to deal with, we could and we would."

Judge Routson said Common Pleas Court has made a number of changes in the last two years in an attempt to reduce costs. It has implemented several new policies that reduce the amount of time criminal defendants spent in the county jail.

"We have taken very measurable steps to do those things here," he said.

Commissioners said they, too, have made changes to reduce spending, including not filling vacant positions following retirements and joining with the city of Findlay to purchase office supplies at a volume discount.

Ms. Walton said the county still must deal with rising costs, unfunded state mandates, and interest rates that are only now beginning to rebound.

Commissioners also paid $18,000 for the state auditor's office to conduct a performance review of the sheriff's office. Final results of the audit, which looked at operations as well as finances, are to be presented to commissioners at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

Sheriff Mike Heldman said the audit showed that, in most ways, his office is running about as efficiently as it can.

"It showed that we are working within the means that is provided and not overspending as some people say," he said, adding that the sheriff's office also has made changes to increase efficiency and has gotten more than $200,000 in grants to upgrade equipment.

Sheriff Heldman said that if the sales tax increase does not pass, he would be forced to lay off seven jail employees and one to two road deputies. He would reduce the number of beds at the jail by 36 and no longer rent 10 additional beds at the Putnam County jail.

"So that's 46 inmates that will not be in jail. They will be out on the street," he said.

Commissioner Walton said county departments will be asked to cut their budgets by about 2.5 percent in 2006 even if the sales tax passes. If it fails, they could be looking at 18 percent to 20 percent cuts.

Riad Yammine, chairman of the chamber of commerce, said the county has not fulfilled the promise it made in 2003 to become more efficient.

"The agreement was let's take advantage of the two-year period when they will have that extra tax income coming into the coffers and we will take the time to do a very thorough evaluation of county and city government, eliminate duplication of efforts, improve efficiencies, and when we come out of the two-year period, we will have a slimmer, more efficient, less-cost operation in the city and county," he said.

"Some of that did occur but the majority did not, unfortunately."

Mr. Yammine, who also belongs to the Concerned Citizens group, said chamber members are committed to keeping Hancock County's tax rate low.

"We continually have been able to attract new businesses and new customers to the community because of many things, but one of those is the low tax environment," he said.

At 6 percent, Hancock County has the lowest sales tax rate in northwest Ohio and one of the lowest in the state.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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