Portage County commissioners have agreed to impose a 0.25-percent hike on the county's sales tax for five years, effective Oct. 1. That will put Portage's sales tax at 7.25 percent, the same as most other counties in Ohio. It will mean an extra penny tax on a $4 purchase.
The agreement came after a 90-minute meeting Tuesday afternoon in which the board heard from Sheriff David W. Doak, municipal court judges Barbara Oswick and Kevin Poland, and others.
A final vote on a resolution is expected to come on Tuesday. If the board approves the resolution by Tuesday, the tax will be collected starting Oct. 1, but the county won't see revenue until after Jan. 1.
Commissioner Vicki Kline said she was glad the board made progress on the issue.
"I don't feel good about imposing the tax, we have to do it, and we have to be very transparent and accountable about how we spend it," she said.
Commissioner Kathleen Chandler said she was concerned that addiction is leading to more deaths and more crime by people stealing to buy drugs.
Commissioner Maureen T. Frederick said part of the reason the county doesn't have money to expand the jail without the tax is because the Kasich administration has cut Local Government Funds to the county by $1.5 million.
"With all due respect, ma'am, the governor is not going to give that money back. It's time to move on," said Jim Smith, who sits on the task force looking at jail needs.
The board has asked for confirmation from the county prosecutor's office on how sales tax revenue can be used.
Commissioners want to make sure the estimated $5 million per year raised by the tax will be used only for "criminal and administrative justice services." Those include the sheriff, prosecutor, courts, clerk of courts and coroner. That category also allows the tax revenue to be spent on rehabilitation and detention services, facilities and operations.
Commissioners have said they plan to use the revenue first to expand the jail's capacity for female inmates. Doak said the jail had 65 female inmates as of Monday and Tuesday. The jail is certified to house 34 female inmates. The expansion would add about 30 beds. Tax money also would be used to add corrections staff to the jail and add at least one new road patrol position on a 24-hour basis.
In future years, commissioners said they want to pursue adding a jail section to include a drug rehabilitation program.
Poland and Oswick, like Judge Becky Doherty last week, argued for imposing the tax rather than putting it on the November ballot for a three-year term.
"I don't think we can wait until November or wait a year to try again when it fails," Poland said. He also argued that three years is not enough to develop a track record of how the tax is being used.
Oswick agreed, saying "nobody I've talked to thinks (the tax) has a good chance of passing." Both said the number of drug incidents, overdoses and drug-related deaths require immediate action by the board.
Poland noted there were six overdoses in Ravenna and two elsewhere in the county in one night last week. All eight victims survived, thanks to quick action by emergency responders.
The number of fatal overdoses, particularly from heroin, has skyrocketed in the past two years. Heroin was noted as the cause of 14 out of 22 fatalities in 2013 and of 18 out of 27 fatal overdoses last year.
Attorney George Keith warned against waiting to take action because the county could end up with a federal court order.
"We may end up with an alligator we can't begin to wrestle," he said.
He said judges do a good job of identifying people who end up before them who need help. While there are programs out there, they are overcrowded and it takes time for people to get in.
"If we don't do something immediately, some of them are going to be dead," Keith said.
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Portage County TEA Party Executive Director Tom Zawistowski said "The idea that no one in the public will come to a meeting and that Portage County residents "understand, they just don't care" is not only false, it is an insult to the good people of this community who do care deeply about the drug issue and will do the right thing with the right leadership. My proof is the June 16, 2015 meeting just held at Maplewood Career Center to discuss Police Community Relations in which over 150 citizens attended and the main topic was the Heroin epidemic and the need to build a new jail. People were stunned by what they learned and are ready to act to build a new jail. They don't need the Commissioners to "impose" a tax on them because the Commissioners and Judge Doherty think they are to stupid to understand or to lazy to act. The fact that the Commissioners can't get anyone to attend their meetings is an indication of how out of touch they are with the people of Portage County. They never called or wrote to the Portage County TEA Party and asked if they could meet with our group on the issue. Why? What other groups did they approach about the meeting? Did they really want citizens to participate? The fact is that they are derelict in their duty as Commissioners if they try to "impose" this tax just like they did the tripling of the license plate fees, where the used the courts to keep the Portage County TEA Party from putting that on the ballot. The PRIMARY job of the County, by our County Charter, is public safety. The jail and the Sheriff's department should be funded FIRST in every budget out of the taxes we already pay but it is not fully funded by their choice. The Commissioners use the Sheriff's Department like the schools use sports and busing to force citizens to agree to taxes they should not have to pay. Despite their failure to do their duty, the Portage County TEA Party knows that the citizens of Portage County will do their duty and pass a tax increase - if it is limited to 5 years. The reality, is that the commissioners are trying to use the jail issue as a way to permanently increase their budget and that is why they don't want it on the ballot. They must put this to a public vote."
Zawistowski continued, "I personally served for a time on the Jail Expansion Committee, put together by the Commissioners, to explore ways to fund a badly needed addition to the jail and I told that Committee and I told Sheriff Doak at that time that the Portage County TEA Party would aggressively support a five year quarter percent sales tax hike like the one used originally to build the jail. I went further than that and said that I was confident that we could get the community to support such a tax increase at the ballot and that we would commit to do so. My frustration was that they would not put it on the ballot. We should have been building the new jail by now but they would not act."
PORTAGE COMMISSIONERS CONSIDER IMPOSING SALES TAX
By Mike Sever | Staff Writer Published: July 17, 2015 4:00AM
Portage County commissioners may vote to impose a one-quarter percent sales tax, rather than waiting for voters to turn it down in the November election.
Thursday, the board debated the need to move ahead now to raise the sales tax from 7 to 7.25 percent on most sales. The hike would mean an extra one cent tax on a $4 purchase.
The tax would raise an estimated $5 million per year with money focused on building new jail facilities to relieve overcrowding of women inmates. The tax would also be used to add to the road patrol of the county sheriff's office and eventually, fund some drug treatment and rehabilitation programs to help stem the flood of drug addiction in the county.
Commissioners and other elected officials have said they see little voter support for raising the tax. And public interest was almost nonexistent at three public hearings to explain the tax.
Judge Becky Doherty, who is working to get a drug court certified by the Ohio Supreme Court, said commissioners should impose the tax.
She said she has talked to people about the problems drug addiction is causing for the county courts and jail system.
"They understand, they just don't care. That's why I don't think it should go on the ballot," Doherty said. She said she tries to keep addicts in jail as long as possible.
"I can keep them locked up until their head clears enough to decide they are ready for treatment," she said. "We need to keep them in a position they are not a threat to themselves or the public," Doherty said.
County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci said the county jail has medical staff, but it is not properly staffed or equipped to handle a drug rehabilitaion program.
"We're running a detox center now, by default," Vigluicci said. The county lacks a long-term solution for inmates, he said.
"We can't arrest them, put them through arraignment and cut 'em loose -- they're just going to commit more crimes or kill themselves," he said.
Commissioner Kathleen Chandler said she's very frustrated by the lack of public concern.
"There are so many addicts out there, it's only a matter of time before they are in your house," she said. The only hope of reducing the demand on jail space is for the county to offer some intervention, Chandler said.
"If we do nothing," and people continue to overdose and die, "then it is our responsibility," Chandler said.
During an hour-and-a-half discussion Thursday, commissioners Chandler and Vicki Kline indicated they are willing to consider imposing the tax while Commissioner Maureen T. Frederick said she was reluctant to vote to impose. It would take a unanimous vote of the three commissioners to impose the tax.
"To me, it does seem like a dastardly deed to not give voters a chance to vote on it," Frederick said.
Kline said she was torn on the issue.
"I believe voters need a choice, but personally I don't think it will pass," she said.
Auditor Janet Esposito, who was a county commissioner when the county built the jail 20 years ago, suggested the board impose the tax but for a limited time.
"I would not ever vote for a tax for $5 million a year for a continuous time. I'd rather you impose it or not," she said. "But I would vote for a tax for $15 million over three years."
That would give enough money to meet most of the immediate needs, she said. But it would not give a continuing source of revenue to pay for needed additional jail staff, said Todd Bragg, head of the commission's budget office.
Kline said the time-limited tax "is a good compromise."
The board is scheduled to discuss imposing the tax at its Tuesday session.
If the board does impose the sales tax hike as an emergency measure, voters could put the tax to a referendum by filing petitions signed by at least 4,079 county voters.