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Published: Tuesday, 9/8/2009

Fulton County commissioners take no joy over idea of tax hike

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

WAUSEON - While others had broached potential economic consequences from raising Fulton County's sales tax by half a penny to plug a growing budget gap, Phil Liechty suggested political fallout.

Addressing the county commissioners during a third hearing last week concerning the tax-increase idea, the Wauseon resident predicted a taxpayer revolt, prompted by the combination of a higher sales tax and recent property revaluations, that could push the county's current leaders out of office.

"You've impressed me this evening with your grasp of all the numbers. The problem now is strictly the timing, and it's very political," said Mr. Liechty, who appealed to the commissioners, as fellow Republicans, to avoid doing anything that might result in "those other guys" gaining fiscal control after the next county election.

"You guys have really got a tiger by the tail," he said, proposing that the county's financial situation may be even worse than the commissioners portrayed it. But "this half-penny isn't going to get you anything, and it could do more damage than good."

The commissioners responded that they take no joy in proposing a higher sales tax in Fulton County, and have worked with County Administrator Vond Hall to cut spending or transfer it to accounts with dedicated funding streams wherever possible.

The $1.4 million that the half penny is expected to raise is needed to offset declining revenue from all of the county's sources, including the sales tax, property taxes, investment income, fees for public services, and state support, they said.

"When the times are good, we didn't need the money," said Joseph Short, the commissioners' president. "The last thing we want to do is tax the people."

And Paul Barnaby remarked that while he has opposed sales-tax increases in the past - Fulton's tax has remained at a penny on the dollar since 1987 - "the need is here now."

The commissioners took no action on the proposal following the hearing Thursday evening and said they would take time to ponder additional budgetary measures before deciding whether to move forward with the sales-tax increase, which would raise Fulton's tax to the maximum 1.5 cents allowable under state law. The commissioners cancelled both of their regular meetings this week because of the Fulton County Fair.

Cost-cutting options the commissioners have placed on the table include furloughs of up to 80 hours for county workers, a three-year wage freeze, and reduced operating hours for county offices.

John Trudel, the former county auditor, argued at length that while there "is no question in my mind that you need this extra half percent," the county should concurrently help taxpayers by rolling back part of its emergency medical services levy.

The commissioners answered that levy rollbacks are the purview of the county budget commission, which so far has chosen no such action though the county commissioners have asked for reviews in that area.

County Recorder Sandy Barber said during the hearing that county officials have been prodded about frugality for at least the last five years, and the current fiscal crisis is hardly unique to Fulton County.

"I don't like raising taxes - I'm a conservative Republican," she said. "But I would rather be paying more local taxes than I would to Columbus or Washington."

And Clerk of Courts Mary Gype fretted that if her staff is cut too deep, she will lose the ability to meet legal deadlines for filing and maintaining records.

"If layoffs and furloughs are implemented, I fear for my office and the court system," she said. "I would hate to have a lawsuit if things aren't timely done."

The commissioners' proposal places a three-year sunset on the tax increase. At that point, they said, a review would be needed to determine if the additional tax revenue is still needed.

The three-year period was chosen, commissioner Dean Genter said, because "it's going to take more than a year to recover" economically and the county will have some catching-up to do on deferred expenses, such as vehicle purchases and building repairs that have been put off.

The commissioners have authority to approve a sales-tax increase on their own, but Mr. Genter noted that if they do so, there will be a 30-day period during which a referendum appeal could be petitioned. Should the commissioners go forward with the hike, he said, "we'll probably see six months before we get any [additional] revenue."



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