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Friday, January 7, 2011

UPDATE AT 11:15 AM & AT NOON - (CITIZENS REVIEW COMMITTEE REPORT DUE OUT 1/24/2011); SEE BERNABEI VIDEO AND VOTE NO INCREASED TAXES MEMBER CRAIG CONLEY REACTION TO POSSILITY OF BALLOT INITIATIVE: TODAY'S TOPIC - DO THE COMMISSIONERS "REALLY" HAVE ANY CHOICE ON PUTTING SALES TAX RENEWAL ON THE MAY, 2011 BALLOT?


UPDATE:  01/07/2011 AT NOON

A source who is in a position to know has told the SCPR that the Citizens Review Committee report on county finances in terms of the efficiencies of Stark County departments of government will be out on January 24, 2011 and will be presented by committee officials at 10:00 a.m. in Room 315 of the Stark County Office Building.

UPDATE:  01/07/2011 AT 11:15 AM

First, see the video at the end of this blog which is a presentation of Commissioner Tom Bernabei on the matter of whether or not Stark County will be putting the renewal of the 0.250 sales tax for May or November of this year.

Second, the SCPR has just talked with local attorney and civic activist Craig T. Conley who says that he will be recommending to the Vote No! Increased Taxes Committee that the group oppose the the renewal of the 0.250 sales tax whether it is put on in May or November.

Conley tells The Report that his recommendation is based on the failure of Sheriff Tim Swanson not seizing the initiative with the deputies' union to reopen the contract to negotiate a freeze on any wage increases.  Conley says that deputies are getting pay raises on the mere passage of time and that such is unacceptable in a time when other county workers are taking furloughs and in the face of layoffs in the sheriff's department itself.

ORIGINAL POST

"Two bites at the apple," that's what the SCPR believes today's commissioner decision is about when they meet at 1:30 p.m. today to decide whether or not to schedule hearings which are required to have occurred at least 90 days before May 3, 2011 (the next election day for Stark County) if they want to try to renew the 0.250 sales tax set to expire this year.

Sure, commissioners may lose on May 3rd.  But they might not.  And therefore why wouldn't they elect to go ahead with the preliminary step of scheduling hearings?  They still can, after holding the hearings, drop the tax renewal initiative.

With a reordering (except for Commissioner Ferguson) of who sits in the commissioners' chairs in the 2nd floor (Stark County Office Building) meeting room, it could be that Stark Countians will be of a mind to give the county a go ahead on retaining the tax.  Commissioners Janet Creighton and Tom Bernabei (newly elected) bring solid credentials with them in terms of having the public trust.  And the SCPR believes that having the public's "trust" is THE KEY for anyone who wants to hold office in Stark these days.

While the laying off of 41 sheriff deputies and 16% across-the-board cuts of county general fund recipients could be a basis for an argument that the fear generated thereby that Stark will be less safe and that there will be less services will be enough to get the county over-the-hump in a 0.25 sales tax renewal effort, The Report does not think so. 

If the county is to succeed in May, it will be a public perception that the "new" regime is on the road to restoring trust in the integrity of how tax revenues are spent that determines the question of whether or not to renew.  Undoubtedly, some Stark Countians will respond to the "fear factor."  But they will not provide a winning majority.  It will be, if it is to be, on the basis of trust.

With the loss of about $2.96 million from the county treasury by theft of taxpayer funds by the now imprisoned former Chief Deputy Vince Frustaci ($2.96 million in the opinion of federal Judge John Adams; however, Frustaci actually admitted to stealing $2.46 million), Stark Countians lost trust in county officials to protect public assets.

Commissioners Bosley (who did not run for re-election as commissioner), Meeks (who lost to Creighton in November) and Ferguson did what they were empowered to do by Ohio law by removing Gary Zeigler as treasurer on August 23rd on the mere loss of funds while he was treasurer.  Law enforcement officials have determined that Zeigler had nothing to do with the theft.  And, he is fighting in the courts for re-instatement.

Had he run, the SCPR believes that Bosley would have lost because of a number of factors.  

First, he was part of the triad of commissioners (Bosley - [Democrat], Harmon [Democrat] and Vignos [Republican]) who voted to "impose" a 0.50 sales tax increase in December, 2008 for the ostensible reason of fixing the broken 9-1-1 countywide dispatch.  When it became known that the tax increase included a split of revenues between a 9-1-1 rehab fund and the general fund, any chance of voter approval to retain the tax was lost.  The SCPR believes voters felt as if they were being hoodwinked on the "real" purpose of the tax and responded with a overwhelming thrashing of the attempt to retain the levy.

Second, as a sitting commissioner and being a Democrat (Zeigler's party identity), it appears that the public in voting may have felt (as suggested by and fueled by The Repository editorial board) that he and fellow Commissioner Meeks (also a Democrat) were not active enough in the time between the time of the discovery of the Frustaci theft (April 1, 2009) through June, 2010 (when Frustaci pled to a federal bill of information) to get the investigation moved along to finality.  Some even suggested that the commissioners should have been looking over the shoulders of internal treasury operations.

Meeks likely lost - one - he was viewed as a Stark County Democratic Party insider.   He had been appointed as the replacement of Tom Harmon who had replaced Commissioner Gayle Jackson (who had obtained a Strickland administration appointment to the Ohio Lottery Commission) via the sponsorship of Stark County Democratic Party bigs (e.g. Johnnie A. Maier, Jr, [former chairman) and Randy Gonzalez (the current chairman) and - two -  like Bosley - to repeat the second Bosley point made above - was likely perceived not to have been active enough while the Frustaci investigation lingered to push for its resolution.  Moreover, it did not help that Meeks was opposed by the popular former Canton mayor Janet Creighton (Republican) who had previously held a couple of county offices (recorder and auditor).

The SCPR believes that Stark County Auditor Kim Perez was another casualty of the Frustaci matter in losing to Republican Alan Harold this past November.

First, because he was perceived to be a close Democratic political ally of Zeigler and, second, because he was likely thought by the public to have been less than duly diligent in pushing the state of Ohio auditor to pursue a thoroughgoing investigations of mismatches in figures being reported to the county auditor and the auditors own figures which Perez says occurred on a couple of occasions.

Rightly or wrongly based, when the voting public loses confidence in public officials because of perceived failures in the performance of the public duties, then it is likely to be a long climb back to regain that confidence.

If the commissioners decide to put the 0.25 sales tax renewal on the May ballot, the outcome will - in the judgment of the SCPR - be a measuring rod of how much progress the commissioners have made in getting back the voters' trust.

Bernabei got an early start as commissioner because he won the "unexpired term" (of Meeks/Harmon).  With his accession to office, he immediately, with the "unofficial" approval of Commissioner-elect Creighton made an immediate change in restructuring the meetings of commissioners.  He requested that commissioners meet more regularly than once a week in the form of having work sessions.  Consequently, commissioners now meet on Mondays and Tuesdays in work sessions in addition to their regular Wednesday meetings.

Also, Creighton and Bernabei have exercised heightened thoroughness (compared to the former set of commissioners) in bringing various county officials before them (e.g. budget hearings, the 9-1-1 folks, and Fair Board officials) and vetting them on the particular issues that the officials bring with them.  Undoubtedly, Stark Countians are taking all this in and such will redound to the benefit - in terms of engendering trust - to the commissioners.

One of Creighton's priorities is to keep tabs on county officials who submit requests for "after-the-fact" funding of various purchases and travel requests.  She repeated at this past Wedneday's meeting that county officials should know that she watching these requests very closely.  

The Report fully expects that there will come an instance when a repeat offender, for no good reason, fails to get prior authorization and will end up paying out of his/her pocket.

It could be that the commissioners can get a renewal of the 0.25 sales tax in May.  And if they do go for a renewal and win,  their victory will be more than avoiding a huge, huge 2012 budget crisis which could see budget cuts in addition to this year's 16% balloon to 30% or so in 2012.   An important part of a May victory will be a signal that the Stark County public is beginning to trust county government again.

If the renewal is offered, but it loses, then the commissioners have an opportunity to huddle with county officials and perhaps come up with a dedicated criminal justice levy to offer in November and avoid draconian 2012 cuts.

In this way, the county will have gotten "two bites at the apple."  

Accordingly, the SCPR advocates that the commissioners offer up the 0.25 sales tax up for renewal this May.  

Stark's voters should be afforded every opportunity to avoid the financial calamity which is coming, if the 0.25 or an equivalent thereto is not in place in 2012.

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