FINDLAY - Hancock County residents' feelings about a proposed sales tax hike came in loud and clear and decidedly mixed yesterday:
•Impose the 0.75 percent sales tax increase now and get moving on flood mitigation for the Blanchard River.
•Don't impose the tax; let the people vote on it.
•Don't let the people vote on the tax; it will fail for sure.
County commissioners have until the end of the month to decide whether to raise the county's sales tax, which is the lowest in the state, from 6 percent to 6.75 percent or place the question before voters on the November ballot.
The tax increase would raise an estimated $7.25 million a year for a continuing period.
Commissioner Phil Riegle told about 60 people gathered for the final public hearing on the proposal that about $2.5 million of the new revenue would be allocated to flood mitigation projects, while $2 million would support operation of county government, $2 million would go toward construction of a new downtown court center, and $1 million would be set aside for other capital projects.
Several people in the crowd said they understood the need for flood-control measures, but were uncomfortable combining that priority with county buildings and operations.
"I think three-quarters percent is reasonable, but are we giving enough to flood [mitigation]?" Doug McCracken, of Bloomdale, Ohio, asked. "I think the most pressing thing in Findlay is flooding."
Ray Hartzell, who identified himself as "84 and very opinionated," said people are uneasy about mixing the flooding issue with the building issues.
He reiterated Mr. McCracken's view that when it comes to construction projects, the county needs a bigger jail more than it needs new court offices.
"I'm not for building a new judge's office with carpet and oil paintings until we build a jail to put [the criminals] in," Mr. Hartzell said.
Commissioners have proposed building a central justice center for the courts and related offices and converting the historic courthouse into a central administration building for county government.
The plan is in response to a long-standing need for more office space and the fact that several county office buildings were damaged beyond repair by August's flooding.
Commissioner Ed Ingold said at the same time county revenues are flat or declining, the courts' caseloads are 70 percent higher than in 2002 and the number of children in the county's care is 100 percent higher than in 2001.
Without the sales tax increase, the commissioners anticipate a shortfall of $1.75 million to $2.5 million next year.
"There is no Plan B," Mr. Ingold said. "Without an infusion of revenues, the services provided by Hancock County will be severely affected in 2009 and beyond."
Representatives of the Northwest Ohio Flood Mitigation Partnership, a privately funded group working with the Army Corps of Engineers to expedite flood mitigation in the Blanchard River Watershed, urged support of the tax, which they said will better position the area for federal assistance.
"It's time now for us to come together and get on with the business of building the future of this community," Randy Lohoff, chairman of the partnership board, said.
Richard Wittenmyer, a business owner affected by the August flood, said he recalls when local voters defeated a plan that would have paid for flood-control measures back in 1962. "I'm here to urge you to impose this tax because I don't want it left to the voters again," he said. "We have got to move this community forward."
Terry Rowland of Findlay said if commissioners impose the tax, it surely will be the subject of a referendum.
"This is still a democracy," he said. "Let us all vote on it."
Jean Coldren Hendricks, of Vanlue, Ohio, said that the sales tax was the fairest way to go. She said she didn't want to see her property taxes go any higher.
"I don't think it should go to a vote," she told commissioners. "I think you ought to have guts enough to put it on."
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