A group led by a Republican Montgomery County commission candidate has until 4 p.m. Thursday to collect and turn in 14,583 valid signatures in an attempt to overturn a commission-approved sales tax increase.
But those in county government say Doug Barry and others don’t understand the fiscal hardship put on counties by the state legislature.
“All the people out there getting petitions and getting stirred up over $36 a year, they definitely have a right to do that, but it’s very disappointing,” said Debbie Lieberman, Montgomery County Commission president. “We are getting cut by the state — our state legislature and our governor … They are not being our partner, and we have to repair that partnership.”
In June, the three Democrats on the county commission passed a 0.25 percent sales tax increase that works out to about $36 a year for every man, woman and child in Montgomery County.
Barry said Monday what was missing in the process was the voice of a majority of voters who were not heard from during a series of five-year budget sessions, a community meeting and two required public hearings.
“When it comes to an issue that’s as big as this issue is — we’re talking an increase in the sales tax that affects so many different groups, from people who are struggling right now to make ends meet to businesses that are trying to compete — I feel it should be the decision by the voters whether or not this is something that’s good for the county,” Barry said.
He said nearly 100 volunteers fanned out across the county this past weekend gathering signatures at bigger gatherings such as 5k runs and a concert at the Rose Music Center. Drive-through locations were also set up. The volunteers will be back at the Rose in Huber Heights on Tuesday at a Ted Nugent concert.
The straw that broke the back of Montgomery County’s general fund budget was a $9 million cut by the state in Medicaid managed care sales tax, but tens of millions of other cuts from Columbus preceded that, Lieberman said. The tax increase is projected to raise about $19.1 million annually.
Barry said current county commissioners failed to look for strategic, local, collaborative efforts to save taxpayers money. They also went too far asking for millions more than needed.
“Yes, the state has balanced the budget on the backs of local government, but we can’t continue to go balance our budget now on the backs of the residents, and that’s what local governments are continuing to do, and we can’t continue to do that,” he said.
Barry, owner of BarryStaff in Dayton and a Miami Twp. trustee, will be on the Nov. 6 ballot opposite Democrat Carolyn Rice, currently the Montgomery County treasurer.
If the tax increase is derailed, Lieberman said the county will be forced to scuttle a number of programs focused on the arts, economic development and criminal justice. The money is also earmarked for planned upgrades to the Montgomery County Jail, the focus of nearly a dozen civil rights lawsuits costing the county more than $1 million in recent years.
“If that (tax increase repeal) happens, every office in the county will be slashed. It could mean jobs,” she said. “It certainly will not include the new officers we were going to provide the sheriff and all the programs to make the jail safer for our employees and inmates. All off that is off the table. It just can’t happen. There’s no way.”
“I think people are missing the point, this is about public safety.”
Lieberman said she and the other two Democrats on the commission came to a difficult decision to raise taxes.
“We didn’t want to do it but we had to because our state representatives that we sent to the state of Ohio don’t see that what we do is critical apparently. Nor does the governor.”
On Monday, the County Commissioners Association of Ohio called for more sharing by the state legislature to help close the funding divide between Columbus and local officials.
“The state’s revenue policy decisions, coupled with our growing costs, have created an environment where many counties have had to deplete reserves, delay capital projects and struggle to provide the services that Ohioans need. In many instances, while the state was cutting taxes, counties were forced to raise taxes to continue their state mandated functions,” said CCA0 1st Vice President Julie Ehemann.
Among its proposals, CCAO wants local government funding restored to a 2008 level of 3.68 percent from a current 1.66 percent, generating $145 million more for counties, and restore the $166 million annual Medicaid managed care revenue loss to counties.
The organization also wants state lawmakers to establish and fund a portion of the increased costs related to the opiate epidemic crisis and assume total responsibility for indigent defense. The Ohio Public Defender’s Office estimates that in fiscal year 2018, indigent defense services will cost counties $79.5 million.
Phil Parker, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said the group has many members who benefit from the economic development programs and grants the county offers, but also has those who might be negatively impacted by a sales tax increase.
But while the organization has so far remained neutral on the subject, Parker, who was a member of the five-year-budget planning committee for the county, said he recognizes the difficulty placed on local governments.
“The county has been cut dramatically by the state as far as resources the state typically passes down to local governments,” Parker said. “But because of the weight of both sides of the debate, we elected not to endorse either way, pro or con.”
Last week, a group founded by Ohio Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Mount Lookout, turned in 37,000 signatures in an effort to overturn a recent 0.20 percent sales tax increase in Hamilton County.
“You get some arrogant commissioners who think they know better and they try to overplay their hand and hope the public isn’t looking,” Brinkman said. “Luckily we have a system that allows the public to engage.”
It will be days until Hamilton County authorities determine whether the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes garnered 23,600 valid signatures.
Because of its effect on county revenue, the seldom-used petition process to overturn a permissive sales tax increase approved by county commissioners is distinct from other initiatives, first going through the county auditor’s office, according to elections officials.
“It’s different in the fact that we haven’t gone through a referendum of this nature, but it’s similar in a sense that we have gone through multiple petitions that have been on the ballot before,” said Jan Kelly, director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections.
The group collecting signatures in Montgomery County is required to meet a 4 p.m. deadline Thursday – or 30 days after commissioners approved the tax increase. The part-petitions will be open for public inspection at the auditor’s office for 10 days. Then the elections board has another 10 days to verify that the group collected 14,538 valid signatures of registered voters, Kelly said.
It’s unknown how close the local group is to clearing the first hurdle to the ballot — gathering a predicted 20,000 signatures to hopefully have enough that turn out valid, Barry said.
“We haven’t even counted a single petition yet … So I couldn’t even give you a guesstimate where we are,” he said.