Lorain County employee layoffs are likely after commissioners on Wednesday rejected a 0.25 percent sales tax hike that could have plugged a projected $5 million deficit.
The county has projected revenue of about $56 million for 2017 — including a $5.1 million carryover surplus — and projected expenditures of $61.2 million. The increase would’ve raised about $9.5 million more annually.
County administrator Jim Cordes said after the public hearing that cuts could be “severe” unless the county gets one-time revenue such as from the sale of county buildings. He said it was premature to say how many layoffs would occur and it would be up to department heads to decide who goes after a budget is passed.
Layoffs could potentially be made in several departments including the auditors office, coroner’s office, county recorder, commissioner’s office, prosecutors office, sheriff’s office, or treasurer’s office. Cordes said the courts and adult probation and veterans services are mandated services that are exempt from cuts. Mandated services encompass about 74 percent of the budget.
Commissioners held a few sparsely-attended meetings around the county before the election to discuss how precarious finances were, but failed to sway voters.
At the polls, those voters, who haven’t approved a sales tax increase since 1994, defeated the sales tax proposal by a 74 to 26 percent margin.
Commissioners agreed the increase was needed, but split their vote. Commissioner Ted Kalo voted yes while commissioners Lori Kokoski and Matt Lundy voted no.
Lundy said he couldn’t renege on a 2014 campaign promise not to impose a tax. “When you give your word you’ve got to keep your word,” he said after the meeting.
While only two votes were required for passage, Kokoski said she wouldn’t vote to impose the tax hike without unanimous support.
“It’s unfortunate we can’t get the word out to the people of this community how dire it is and how much the need is,” she said. “It’s not a spending problem. It’s a revenue problem.”
THE ARGUMENT FOR A HIGHER SALES TAX
The sales tax is a more equitable way to raise money compared to the property tax, which only homeowners pay, said Kalo. He noted residents outside the county who shop in Lorain County also pay sales taxes.
A lack of money has meant under-funding important services provided by the prosecutor and sheriff’s offices as well as having inadequate transportation. Lorain County Transit has just four bus routes, all in Elyria and Lorain.
Kalo also noted that Lorain County is the ninth largest of Ohio 88 counties, but in the bottom four for sales tax collections.
At 6.5 percent, Lorain County is tied with three other counties for the lowest sales tax in Ohio. The state takes 5.75 percent of the approximately $28 million the tax generates annually.
“It’s a quarter on $100,” Kalo said of the increase. “It’s our job to provide a proper budget.”
The Democratic commissioners were highly critical of Republican Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-majority legislature for substantially cutting taxes for the richest Ohioans and accumulating a $2 billion surplus while cutting local aid. The county received 2.8 million this year compared to $4.8 million in 2011, Kasich’s first year in office.
Kasich touted Ohio’s tepid recovery from the Great Recession as the “Ohio miracle” while running for president this year. However, Kasich on Tuesday said Ohio is on the “verge of a recession” due to low tax revenue.
Lundy said it was another example of the failure of “trickle-down economics” in which cutting taxes for corporations and the rich is supposed to lead to job creation. “The lie’s been exposed again,” he said.
HOW HEROIN HAS DRAINED COUNTY COFFERS
County coroner Stephen Evans and county prosecutor Dennis Will said the local heroin and fentanyl epidemic has stretched their budgets to the breaking point.
Evans is estimating there will be at least 120 fatal overdoses by the year’s end compared to 65 last year.
Skyrocketing overdoses since 2012 and an increase in drug-related homicides has meant far more autopsies. Evans, hired in 2012, said he’s done 72 autopsies this year while his predecessor averaged about nine per year. Full autopsies are not performed on every overdose victim if the coroner feels toxicology reports can determine the cause of death.
Evans, whose office has an approximately $600,000 budget, said the epidemic has “bankrupted” his office, forcing him to make tough decisions such as whether to do blood tests or autopsies.
“I’m short-sheeting some of these people that need justice. Everything I do impacts the police department and the prosecutor’s office,” he said. “They need me to give them information so we can put away some of these drug dealers. All of this is connected.”
Will said his staff has been “overwhelmed” with drug-related cases. Assistant prosecutors spend much of their time in drug court, prosecuting cases, or writing affidavits for search warrants or wiretaps. Will, whose office has an approximately $3.2 million budget, has cut three attorneys and three secretaries since 2009.
“If we don’t get help, if we continue at this level, or, God forbid, you cut our budget, we’re not going to be able to deliver services,” Will told commissioners. “We’re at the breaking point.”
While sympathetic to the plight of Evans and Will, Amherst resident Christine Camirillo was of four county residents who spoke against the increase. She noted Elyria and Lorain have seen huge job losses in the last year.
“People are struggling to get by,” she said. “I’m convinced there is a need, obviously, but I’m still opposed to it being put on the people without their yes vote.”
Cordes said many residents don’t understand how complicated the budget process is. He said they invent facts and believe urban legends to justify not supporting tax increases.
“It’s going to make it terribly impossible to get anything done in this county,” Cordes said. “I’m grievously worried for the well-being of our community.”
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.