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Published: Tuesday, 2/14/2006

Voters vent over sales tax in Henry County

Henry County Clerk of Courts Judy Sonnenberg, left, and Steve Roby listen to Sheriff John Nye, right, during a public hearing on a proposed sales tax, which voters had repealed in November. Henry County Clerk of Courts Judy Sonnenberg, left, and Steve Roby listen to Sheriff John Nye, right, during a public hearing on a proposed sales tax, which voters had repealed in November.
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NAPOLEON - With the strongest words yet at a public meeting on Henry County's sales tax proposed for the May ballot, three people - including the sheriff's wife - last night told the county commissioners the issue would not pass without changes.

"People in this county are fed up with you guys," Jerry Cameron told county officials whose offices have been riddled in the last few weeks with reports of a $700,000 overcollection of taxes, $12,000 in penalties because of bills paid late, lost interest because of other delayed accounting, and the arrest of Commissioner Steve Baden on a charge of attempted abduction of a 14-year-old South Toledo girl.

"Absolutely can't believe what you guys have done," Mr. Cameron of Napoleon Township, a retired human resources manager, continued.

Leo Zenz of Washington Township, a fair board member and retired farmer, said decisions on paying for the commissioners' own meeting room would kill the proposed 0.5 percent sales tax request.

He said county residents are upset with the commissioners' decision to put the $700,000 that taxpayers apparently were mistakenly overbilled on a courthouse restoration levy toward debt on the mostly empty Oakwood Plaza, where the commissioners, county health department, and board of elections are housed.

"We probably need this 0.5 percent to operate the county. But you aren't going to get it passed because of this complex right here," he said.

Dawn Nye, wife of county Sheriff John Nye, urged commissioners to request an sales tax levy that would be used only for the sheriff's office and emergency medical services, instead of a general operating fund sales tax levy.

"I think that would pass," she said, adding that she did not think the proposed general operating fund sales tax levy could in May.

She sat beside her husband, who earlier in the evening asked commissioners to request a levy, saying he cannot adequately protect the county with any more cuts to his budget.

But Mrs. Nye, a director of operations at an area firm who lives near Liberty Center, said she was speaking for herself.

Commissioners are to vote Thursday morning on whether to ask voters in May to put back on the books the sales tax that they repealed overwhelmingly in November.

Commissioner Baden said he had "real concerns about making further budget cuts," which he said would be necessary if the county does not get new revenue next year.

Richard Bennett, president of the commissioners who voted against the initial step toward putting the sales tax on the ballot, said of last night's discussion: "I'm hearing what I thought - why I didn't go along with it before."

But he said he wanted to discuss the issue with the other commissioners before saying how he will vote Thursday.

The other commissioner, Rita Franz, was not at last night's meeting, although she attended the morning session.

Mr. Baden, who missed last Thursday's meetings which were the day after his arrest, opened both of yesterday's sessions with a 20-minute presentation on the county's budget and the cuts that were made after November's levy repeal.

He drove his red Mustang that had been held in the sheriff's impound lot from the time of his arrest Wednesday morning until Friday, when it was released by Toledo police.

He declined to discuss his case, but he said he had no plans to resign.

County Auditor Ida Bostelman did not attend either session on the tax yesterday.

Her office is blamed for overcharging the taxpayers $700,000 on the courthouse restoration levy and making late payments to the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System that cost taxpayers $12,000, late payments to the Fulton-Henry Health Consortium that cost the county interest, and late payments to the employees deferred compensation fund that cost them interest.

Mr. Zenz asked why the taxpayers were paying the late fees instead of Ms. Bostelman personally. Mr. Bennett replied that the commissioners are looking into the matter.

Her office also may have had a hand in this winter's late property tax bills, which led to $24,000 to $26,000 less interest being collected by the county.

Treasurer Calvin Spiess put part of the blame on Defiance County, which he said took longer than usual to provide its information necessary for calculations on Four County Career Center taxes, which Henry County residents also pay. He declined to specify what the rest of the problems were.

The auditor's office is responsible for preparing figures for tax bills.

But because bills were not ready in December, county residents who wanted to pay them during the 2005 tax year could not.

Of the $12 million to $13 million that the county normally collects from winter tax bills, about $3 million is typically paid in the last week of December.

Compounding the delay of payments based on late bills, Mr. Spiess said that because of the commissioners' budget cuts, his office did not have enough staff to open mail and deposit checks as quickly as usual.

During the same session, Grace Speiser, deputy director of the county board of elections, told commissioners her office would need more money to hire help to program its new voting machines because her staff could not do it.

"We aren't programmers," she said, adding that she has cost estimates of $16,000 to $50,000 a year for the service.

The county's challenges might lead to one of the most competitive races for county commissioner in years.

Yesterday, Matthew Gloor, who is a production manager at Carson Industries LLC, became the third Republican to file petitions for the post with the county Board of Elections. Mr. Gloor is 43 and a resident of Napoleon.

The county has not had three candidates for one seat on the board since 1988. And more are expected to file petitions this week.



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