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Published: Friday, 2/10/2006

Henry County sales tax issue draws debate from 2 camps

Jim Cook, owner of Jim's Snowmobile Sales, speaks against a proposed 0.5 percent county sales tax during a Henry County commissioners' public hearing in Napoleon. Jim Cook, owner of Jim's Snowmobile Sales, speaks against a proposed 0.5 percent county sales tax during a Henry County commissioners' public hearing in Napoleon.
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NAPOLEON - Hardship and accountability were the common themes in opinions on Henry County's proposed sales tax expressed to the county commissioners yesterday.

However, comments fell into two distinct camps, divided by occupational lines.

Elected officials told the commissioners of hardships in their offices, despite what they said was accountable spending. They asked commissioners to request a 0.5 percent sales tax on the May ballot.

"The criminals are still committing crimes," said Sheriff John Nye, who laid off four road deputies this winter because of the county's budget cuts. "The county has no alternative but to go to the voters."

Many of the taxpayers who spoke, however, mentioned hardships in their personal finances or fears that the county, which has been riddled in recent weeks with reports of bills that were paid late and taxes that were overcollected, has not been accountable.

Bostelman Bostelman
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"I've given up eating out. I've got higher heating bills, higher gas bills," said Mark McElrath, a painter from Napoleon. "You've only got so much money."

The commissioners held two meetings on the sales tax yesterday. A morning meeting was designated a public hearing and an evening meeting, which had been called by Commissioner Steven A. Baden because some residents said they couldn't attend a daytime meeting, was labeled an informational session.

Both meetings followed the same format.

About 20 people attended each session, although Jean Bennett, wife of commissioners' President Richard Bennett, said that given the county's problems, the room should have been packed.

Another public hearing on the proposed tax will be at 1:30 p.m. Monday, followed by a similar informational session at 7 that evening.

Mr. Baden, who was charged Wednesday with attempted abduction of a 14-year-old South Toledo girl, did not attend either session yesterday.

Bennett Bennett
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The 0.5 percent sales tax, which would be expected to collect $1.1 million to $1.2 million a year for county expenses, was enacted unanimously by the county commissioners during the summer and overwhelmingly repealed by the voters in November.

Commissioners then cut budgets of most county offices.

County Recorder Sara Myles said she did not have enough employees even on routine days.

"Heaven forbid if one of us gets sick," she said.

But Richard Cordes, a Napoleon Township farmer, said commissioners should not have hired a new Community Improvement Corp. director this winter - or any other new employees - if they were in a budget crunch.

Although Mr. Bennett said comments would be limited to the proposed sales tax, this winter's revelations of problems in county offices crept into sentiments.

Lynn Ripke, owner of Trucker's Paradise Restaurant in Liberty Center, told commissioners they should have put the $700,000 that the county auditor overbilled taxpayers on a courthouse renovation levy into the county's general operating fund instead of asking voters for more money.

And what about the $12,000 in penalties and additional interest the county has accrued because of late payments by county Auditor Ida Bostelman to the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, Mr. Ripke asked.

Mike Lavin, a General Motors retiree, said he voted in November to keep the sales tax, but now he's concerned about reports in the last two weeks of Ms. Bostelman's late payments to health insurance and deferred compensation funds as well as the retirement system and the overbilling of taxpayers.

"I'm just not comfortable with the auditor's office," he said. "You've got some convincing to do for me to vote for the levy."

A couple of people who followed him simply said "Ditto."

And Tom Bortz, a construction worker who is a Flatrock Township trustee, said, "It would be a tough sell for the 0.5 percent sales tax if the money's still going to the same hands that are fumbling it."

He said he considered the $700,000 overpayment that commissioners decided to put toward other debt - primarily Oakwood Plaza where they have their offices - to be "stolen money."

Mr. Bennett said he wished that the overbilling had never happened, but added that the commissioners would have looked stupid filing a lawsuit against the county, which he said would have been necessary to use the money in other ways.

Mr. Bortz replied, "I tell you what, it couldn't get much worse."

And Emma Massey, a housewife, blamed commissioners for playing games with the public because they talked privately about the $700,000 overbilling months before it became publicly known, and then they allocated the money just hours after it was widely reported.

"How can anybody trust you people?" she asked.



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