Park district seeks share of county funds

By Mike Sever Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Portage County Park District has asked for a share of the county's portion of state tax funds distributed among local governments. The estimated $6.3 million available this year is split among the 18 townships, four cities, six villages and the county. The county gets 40 percent of the total, or $2.5 million by the 1998 estimate. The park district Thursday asked commissioners for 5 percent, or about $126,000, of the county's share, starting with the new distribution formula to begin next year. Allan Orashan of the park district said, if the county shares the tax fund, that would supersede the need for the $35,000 annual support for Towner's Woods. "So for the county general fund," said Commissioner Chris Smeiles, "this would not be a $126,000 impact, but about a $90,000 impact." "This would give the park district a guaranteed revenue stream for at least 10 years without being dangled on the end of the budget each year," Smeiles said. The park district proposes to use the tax fund to hire a full-time director and a part-time ranger, cover operations for three hike-bike trails and the park; and fund improvements at the trails and park. It also plans to put about a third of the money toward buying land, or easements on other property. District officials had earlier made their request to the Portage County Budget Commission, which determines how the local government funds are to be distributed on a 10-year plan. "I thought it best to come talk with county commissioners about funding the park district out of the county share," said County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci, who heads the budget commission. The park district is a separate taxing authority, which makes it eligible to share in the funds. The district did not exist in 1988 when the original alternative formula was established, so including it would mean adjusting the formula which expires at the end of 1998. Known as Local Government Funds and Local Government Revenue Assistance Funds, the tax money is drawn from state income tax, sales and use taxes, public utility excise taxes and corporate franchise taxes. At a December meeting attended by representatives from about 20 local governments and the budget commission, a straw poll showed that most favored continuing the current formula for another 10-year round, rather than reopen it for consideration. Aurora and a handful of townships objected to renewing the formula, saying the plan no longer fit their current needs. Commissioner Kathleen Chandler, who represented commissioners at the December session, had made a pitch that all the governments share in supporting the park district. She said Thursday she felt there was some support for that, but that local governments were fearful about opening up the formula process. Readjusting the funding formula to include the park district would also mean other changes could be requested by other local governments, Chandler cautioned. Commissioner Chuck Keiper said he felt that "if the charge doesn't affect anyone else's money, then we're not opening a Pandora's box" over the formula. Keiper said giving a portion of the county share to the park district would "make a bold and proud statement about the future of our park board by showing they are an equal taxing district and give them the independence to determine their own course." Up to now, the district has received about $35,000 annually in county general fund support. The money goes to operate and maintain Towner's Woods Park in Franklin Township, the only park operated by the district. Several hiking-biking trails, such as the Headwaters Trail between Garrettsville and Mantua, are in development. The county also has made special allocations for other projects as needed. In the meantime, Auditor Janet Esposito said councils and trustees of about a dozen townships and villages have passed resolutions in support of continuing the current formula for another decade. Esposito said the tax fund has increased annually over its history. "It has never decreased, It has always increased on an overall average of 2 percent annually." If the county agrees to the 5 percent share and it is approved by the budget commission, the park district would begin to receive funds in 1999 at the start of the new formula, Esposito said. Commissioners set a Jan. 27 deadline to make a decision, to allow the budget commission time to contact other local governments. Because sharing with the park district would change the existing formula, the local governments would have to pass new resolutions approving the new formula.

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