If Portage County officials proceed with placing a sales tax increase before voters, any proposal that makes its way onto the ballot ought to spell out exactly how the anticipated revenues will be spent and, ideally, they ought to be shared by more than one county department.
Talk of placing a sales tax hike on the ballot surfaced recently after County Engineer Michael Marozzi shared his concerns about the inadequacy of existing revenues for county bridge and road work.
Marozzi's department relies heavily on gasoline sales taxes and license plate fees, but revenues from those sources have decreased in recent years -- reversing a 20-year trend that saw them increase by about 2 percent each year. "We're actually losing money every year," Marozzi told county commissioners.
Projections for the immediate future indicate a continuing downturn in gasoline tax revenues, in part because of higher-mileage vehicles and the development of alternative-fuel vehicles. At the same time, however, construction and materials costs are increasing, in part because the economy is slowly recovering.
The upshot is less revenue for infrastructure needs, which complicates the county's ability to leverage state and federal money for large projects that require a 20 percent local match. "We don't have the one dollar to get the other four dollars" in grant funding through AMATS and other sources, said Marozzi, whose department oversees 370 miles of roads and 170 bridges throughout the county, many of which are in need of repair.
The county engineer isn't the only county department head seeking additional funding. Sheriff David Doak has come before commissioners seeking more funding. Among concerns noted is the upsurge in drug-related crime throughout the county, which has directly impacted space at the county jail. Doak has pointed to the need for an expansion of the jail, but revenues to proceed with that are lacking. If jail capacity continues to be strained, the county could find itself repeating history; overcrowding of the old jail located in the courthouse resulted in a federal court order in the late 1980s that mandated the construction of the current jail.
Local governments throughout Ohio are struggling to make ends meet, in part because of the lingering effects of the Great Recession of 2008 and also because those in state government who have zealously campaigned on "cutting taxes" or governed with a "no new taxes" mindset have balanced the budget by cutting funding that formerly made its way to the local level. The revenue hit taken by counties, cities and schools has to be made up somewhere. That's one reason why voters seek so many levy requests.
County commissioners could impose a quarter-percent sales tax increase without going to the voters, but Commissioners Kathleen Chandler and Maureen Frederick say they prefer that the decision by made by the electorate. If that is their course of action, we urge them to work together with other officials to put together a tax package that outlines how the money from the tax hike will be used.
Getting the electorate to vote for a tax hike will not be an easy sell. Other governmental entities, including the Portage Park District and some school districts, already are in line with tax requests. With others competing for support for additional taxes, seeking a proverbial blank check for a county sales tax hike would not be a wise move. A detailed request is in order.