Today - APRIL 1ST - is a anniversary date of dubious distinction for Stark County government.
News broke on April 1, 2009 that Chief Deputy Stark County Treasurer Vince Frustaci was accused by Stark County Treasurer Gary D. Zeigler of stealing taxpayer money which resulted in Zeigler firing Frustaci.
Many Stark Countians believe that this revelation was the onset of a cascade of revelations which was the beginning of the almost total disintegration of trust that Stark Countians have for their government.
Others say: "Hold on a minute, the real date of the unraveling of the trust that Stark Countians have for their government actually began on December 30, 2008 when Stark County Commissioners Todd Bosley, Tom Harmon and Jane Vignos 'imposed' a 0.50 of 1% sales/use tax."
The truth of the matter is that the two occurrences combined (as the primary cause) to wipe out any residual trust that Stark Countians formerly had in county government.
Of course, it is basic civics that the American system of government is built on basic distrust of government. Checks and balances in the constitutional framework of government amounts to an institutionalization of the framers' (of the Constitution) distrust of government.
So, in a sense, it can never be said that the citizenry trusts government. But, it can be said that trust in government has it high points and it has its low points. At the local level, Stark Countian trust of county government may be at its lowest level EVER!
The SCPR believes that Stark Countians were absolutely stunned when they learned that Frustaci had stolen from them. While the treasurer himself was completely exonerated by county and federal prosecutors of having any part whatsoever in the theft, Stark Countians were aghast that measures were not in place to prevent the theft which occurred over an approximate six years period of time.
Zeigler (who was removed from office by county commissioners on August 23, 2010 by the provisions of Ohio Revised Code Section 321.38) has steadfastly denied that he was remiss in terms of having in place safeguards to prevent employee thefts. It appears to the Stark County Political Report that he stands alone among former and current Stark County officials (and state auditor officials) in that point of view.
The State of Ohio Auditor (SOA) on June 25, 2010 (as part of the theft investigation) issued a report citing a number of deficiencies in procedures and standards within the Stark treasury. Moreover, successor treasurers (Allbritain, Koher and Zumber [who was elected in November, 2010]) have made judgments agreeing with the SOA assessments, as well as having made their own determinations of additional safeguarding changes needed and have instituted them.
Initially, it was not known how much Frustaci had stolen. Eventually, it came out that he stole either $2.46 million (the SOA finding) or $2.96 million (in the opinion of federal judge John Adams).
The financial implications for Stark County? Devastating!
This is the point at which the missing money combines with the commissioners imposition of the 0.50 of 1% sales tax (December 30, 2008) to deal county finances a lethal blow.
Well, there were a group of citizens who called themselves the "Vote No Increased Taxes Committee ("VoteNos") that formed to gather signatures to repeal the imposed tax.
They were not taken seriously by many county officials (especially Commissioner Bosley, so it seems) until "lo and behold" they - the VoteNos - collected the necessary thousands of valid signatures to force the matter onto the ballot.
Well, with the revelation of the theft of county monies, it was a "walk in the park" for the VoteNos in their quest to convince Stark Countians to repeal the imposed sales tax. By a 2 to 1 margin, the tax was repealed in November, 2009.
The job of repealing the tax was made easier by the campaign of those promoting retention of the tax. In their campaign, almost nothing was said about the fact that most of the money collected by the tax was going to county general fund operations.
The VoteNos jumped all over what they said was a deception by county officials as to what the publicized purpose of the imposed tax was, to wit: "fix Stark County's broken 9-1-1 system."
So now you have:
- the loss of $2.96 million in taxpayer money and the public perception that adequate safeguards were not in place to prevent it or to discover it early on,
- an imposed sales/use tax, and
- a downplaying of the "general fund" revenue generating aspect of the tax which many Stark Countians took as a act of government deception
Answer: A combination of the two. Moreover, the SCPR would add the phenomenon whereby all too many local government officials have plied the public payrolls with their political loyalists, friends and neighbors and have had the good fortune to have relatives - in some instances - hired by non-relative government officials as Ohio ethics law forbids the direct hire of relatives.
Restoring trust is is the utmost importance for the financial health of county government.
With the loss of the $2,96 million and the determination of county commissioners (the current board: Creighton, Bernabei and Ferguson) that public trust is so low that they dare not ask for a renewal of 0.250 of 1 percent tax passed initially in 2003 on the May, 2011 primary election ballot, the county has just completed a round of 16% cuts across county government. A new round of more severe cuts (perhaps as high as 30%) are in the offing in 2012, if a replacement 0.250 is not politically viable by November, 2011.
The Report believes that the current Board of Stark County Commissioners is making progress on restoring trust to county government, but "the jury is still out" (i.e. the Stark County public perception) as to how soon the public trust will be restored to such a degree that commissioners can consider asking the public to approve sorely needed additional revenues to county government.
Let's throw in a wild card into this whole discussion.
The SCPR believes that former Stark County Treasurer Gary D. Zeigler has a 50/50 chance to win his Quo Warranto original action in the Ohio Supreme Court based on the legal arguments presented in the case. Arguments were held on March 23rd and the decision could be out relatively soon.
So the "wild card" discussion point is: How will the Stark County public respond to Zeigler being restored to office, if such happens?
The commissioners reaction to the possibility?
Pretty much, to paraphrase: "We'll cross that bridge if it comes up on our path."