Wednesday, June 8, 2011


In normal times one would think that public officials cracking down on the giving of pay raises would be popular with the voting public.

But how about a situation in which the offending agency of county government is the Veterans Service Commission (VSC - Commission)?  This is an organization which has a constituency of some 43,000 Stark County Veterans.

The VSC (renamed in 1986) is an organization that goes back to 1886 when the Ohio Legislature created the Soldiers' and Sailors' Relief Commission "for the purpose of assisting Honorably Discharged Veterans and their minor children, spouses, and widows, who have met with an unexpected hardship resulting from lack of employment, illness, or injury."

Each of Ohio's counties has a VSC which is operated by a board of five honorably discharged veterans appointed by the judges of the Court of Common Pleas.

Robert Toth is the executive director of the Stark VSC and has been director for 19 years.  Moreover, he has been with the VSC for 31 years starting out as a $11,000 per year as a Veterans' Service Officer.

At its April 13, 2011 monthly meeting the Commission voted to approve the raises that the Stark County Board of Commissioners (SCBOC) objected to at yesterday's meeting.

When the next payroll (which, at the time, had to be approved by the Stark Commissioners) arrived at the SCBOC, the commissioners refused.

Here, in succession, are videos (2) of Commissioners Creighton and Bernabei (1) passing the resolution and commenting on the reasons therefore, and (2) adding commentary further justifying their action.

Commissioner Pete Ferguson (on the board of the Ohio County Commissioners Association) was in Columbus yesterday and was not present to vote.  The Stark County Political Report contacted Commissioner Ferguson in Columbus and he told yours truly that had he been at the meeting he would have voted for the resolution.

However, Ferguson said that he asked County Administrator Mike Hanke whether or not it was a wise thing to do (i.e. the resolution).  Ferguson's thing:  the fact of the matter was that the VSC had approved the raises in April and what is done is done and so why make a big public issue out of the matter.

The SCPR believes Ferguson's question was a good one and should have caused Commissioners Creighton and Bernabei pause for thought about proceeding.  But it didn't.  And now The Report thinks that commissioners may have created a huge problem for themselves in incurring the ire of 43,000 potential Stark County voters come November and the commissioners having the 0.5 sales tax on the ballot.

No doubt the commissioners have a legitimate concern that other Stark County voters will view the pay raises and being proof that the county is not in a critical financial state as commissioners say as they go around Stark County presenting the facts and figures on county finances.

The Report has learned that the commissioners may have bungled an opportunity to stop the raises before the April VSC vote had they been in communication with the VSC board.

Commissioner Ferguson tells The Report that he asked Toth why the VSC board could not have waited until after the November election to approve the raises.  Answer?  The board could have and probably would have, if asked.

Not that the Stark County commissioners would have been trying to hide anything.  They have absolutely no control over what the VSC board does in terms of raises.  And the VSC was determined to give raises, its action was merely a matter of timing.  For the county commissioners, the timing could not have been worse. 

The Ohio Legislature has "mandated" that county VSCs get 0.5 mill of county property tax assessments to budget for lawful use.  In Stark, the millage amounts to about $3.5 million.  However, the Stark VSC has never taken advantage of the full amount available to it.  Some Ohio counties (including neighboring Summit) do.  Moreover, the Stark VSC board typically returns unused portions of what it does budget to the county general fund.

The bottom line is that the VSC - from its perspective - has the money (a little over $15,000) to give raises it feels are fully justified.

Understandably, (even Director Toth can see and empathize with county commissioner concerns) county commissioners do not believe that Stark County taxpayers will understand their powerlessness to stop the raises and therefore will use the VSC raises to vote no on the November levy.

It could be that the county commissioners lose on two fronts:  (1) with Veterans who are outraged at the passionate attack by Commissioner Creighton on the action of the VSC board and the role played by Director Toth (whom she calls a "bureaucrat,") and (2) with the Stark County general public not understanding how a county agency [not noting that the county commissioners have no control over the VSC] can give pay raises in the midst of an financial/fiscal crisis.

There was quite a drama leading up to yesterday's commissioners' resolution.

When county commissioners refused to sign off on the VSC payroll (which included the increases), it appears that the VSC board contacted Stark County Prosecutor John Ferrero about filing a mandamus in the Stark County Court of Common Pleas (remember, the appointing authority for membership on the VSC board itself) requiring the the commissioners to yield and approve.

As it turns out, the county commissioners should not have been approving the VSC employee payroll in the first place.  This according to an opinion by Stark County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Bickis.  The VSC board yes, but not the employees.  Employee approval was for the VSC board to do.  So in the sense of getting the VSC employees paid and paid at their increased salaries (VSC has 12 employees), a crisis necessitating a Court of Common Pleas resolution was averted.  However, Commissioner Creighton is correct.  In refusing to approve the commissioners did cause all but the probationary employee (whom, Toth says, will get the missed money) to lose the increase for two pays.

Director Toth says there have been differences between the VSC and county commissioners over the VSC's budget going back over the 19 years he has been in charge.  For the most part, he says, the conflicts have been easily resolved.  Of late, though, scratch the "easily resolved."

The last crisis came about when Tom Harmon was a county commissioner.  He told Director Toth that  he did not like Ohio Revised Code Section 5901 as his justification as to why the VSC should lessen its request for budget monies.  Harmon was prepared to team up with the then Commissioner Vignos to force a reduction.   Up popped Commissioner Todd Bosley who brokered a resolution of the Harmon/VSC board loggerheads and thereby averted a lawsuit by the VSC against the county commissioners.

The Report suggested to Director Toth in yesterday's press conference (involving the SCPR and Kelli Young of The Repository) that perhaps the money coming from the county property tax for the VSC be segregated from the county general fund so that the VSC's money was its money.  He was all for such a restructuring.

But such would be bad for the county general fund.  For if such a segregation takes place, then there would be no way for unused money to be returned to the county general fund.  So it appears to The Report commissioners ought to rethink their relationship with the VSC and not make a bad financial problem worse.

Here are four (4) videos, in succession, of a press conference with Veterans Services Commission Executive Director Robert Toth who reacts repeatedly to Commissioner Creighton having dissed him as being a "bureacrat."

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