The tie-breaking vote to raise the Lorain County sales tax by a quarter-percent came Wednesday from commissioner Lori Kokoski.
The hike, which will raise about $9.5 million annually, will plug a projected $5 million deficit.
Without the boost, commissioners were reluctantly planning to cut 20 percent from the budgets of the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office and Lorain County prosecutor’s office. The reductions would’ve meant laying off 10 to 12 deputies and six or seven assistant prosecutors.
While commissioner Ted Kalo voted for the increase — “20 percent just devastates county government,” he said — commissioner Matt Lundy voted no. Lundy said he had to keep his 2014 election-year promise to voters not to impose a tax.
Voters in November rejected the tax by a 74 percent to 26 percent margin.
“I have to stick to my word, but at the same time, I want to stress to you that the need is real,” Lundy said. “The financial situation is very serious.”
With Kalo and Lundy split, that left Kokoski to cast the deciding vote. Kokoski, re-elected to a fourth term by a surprisingly close 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent over Republican Connie Carr in November, had been reluctant to impose a tax.
On Dec. 7, she voted no, saying approval had to be unanimous. Kokoski said the week after the vote had been rough.
“I couldn’t sleep well at night thinking about what this was going to do to Lorain County if we didn’t get the sales tax money that is so desperately needed,” she told about 60 people at the meeting, including several deputies who were facing layoffs.. “Hopefully, everybody’s going to have a better Christmas. I know I will knowing that I did the right thing.”
Voters haven’t approved an increase in 20 years, with some saying an increase isn’t needed and that commissioners should manage the money they have better.
But commissioners insist the deficit is a revenue problem rather than a spending problem for the county, which has projected revenue of about $56 million for 2017 and projected expenditures of $61.2 million.
They said the county never fully recovered from the Great Recession, which triggered substantial cuts. The workforce has shrunk from 2,140 when the recession struck in 2008 to about 1,700 now.
The Democratic commissioners said it’s unfair that Republican Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-led legislature have cut taxes for the wealthiest one percent of Ohioans by about $17,000 annually and accumulated an approximately $2 billion surplus while reducing state taxpayer aid to local governments. Aid to the county has been cut from about $4.8 million in 2011, Kasich’s first year in office, to about $2.8 million this year.
Low interest rates have also sharply reduced county interest income. County administrator Jim Cordes said the county earned about $8 million annually from interest income before the recession compared to about $1 million now.
Commissioners noted the county is tied with three others for the lowest sales tax in Ohio despite being the state’s ninth biggest county. And they said many residents are unaware that 5.75 percent of the tax collections goes to the state.
Sheriff Phil Stammitti and county prosecutor Dennis Will supported the increase.
They said the local fentanyl and heroin epidemic — at least 120 fatal overdoses are expected by year’s end compared to a nearly record high of 65 in 2015 — has stretched their resources to the breaking point.
Will, whose office has an approximately 3.2 million budget, said his office is handling 32 homicide cases right now, many drug-related. He said staff would be unable to handle the caseload with six or seven fewer lawyers.
“I’m not coming in here crying wolf,” he said. “No one’s coming to save us. The only people who can save us is you.”
Stammitti, whose office has a $5.8 million budget, said his deputies are responsible for managing an aging, often overcrowded jail and responding to about 60,000 calls in the county townships annually.
He said he understands that residents don’t want to pay higher taxes but it’s the only way to maintain services.
“Nobody needs a deputy or police officer until they need them,” he said. “Then they want them there right now.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Evan Goodenow | Civitas Media Lorain County Sheriffs Office staff at a Dec. 14 county commissioners meeting. Some of those in attendance were facing layoffs if commissioners hadn’t approved a 0.25 percent sales tax to plug a $5 million deficit.