Ottawa County’s rookie commissioner said she did not stray from an Ohio Democratic Party stand when she voted for a permanent sales tax earlier this year.
That quarter percent sales tax is set to go into effect in the county on July 1 and it doesn’t appear it will be knocked down by sales tax reform proposed by Gov. John Kasich. The proposal would have broadened the base of the state sales tax while cutting back percentages on local sales taxes allowed for three years.
Jo Ellen Regal joined the three-member board of commissioners in January after defeating incumbent Mark Stahl of Allen Township.
Less than two months later, she and her peers Jim Sass, a Democrat, and lone Republican Steve Arndt voted on a motion for a permanent quarter percent sales tax. Regal and Sass voted yes. Arndt voted no.
Arndt’s vote was a turnaround from a vote taken nearly two and half years earlier when he, Sass and Stahl all voted to approve a temporary quarter percent tax to help bolster county coffers in a weak economy. The additional tax, which brings the county and state sales tax to a combined 6.75 percent, has brought in about $3 million over the course of its life.
But when the sales tax vote came back to the board this time around, Arndt said he had a key motive behind his thumbs down vote. “The sales tax became a campaign issue,” said Arndt, who defeated Democrat John Huffman in the November 2012 election.
The contention, he said, was that the commissioners held the required public hearings and then voted for the tax instead of putting the sales tax question before voters on the ballot.
“I think we should have taken it to the people,” Arndt said.
In addition, the switch from a temporary tax to a permanent tax was never discussed among commissioners in depth prior to the motion being made, he said.
He also argued that the 2013 county budget was put together based on the possibility that the quarter percent sales tax revenues might not come through. And the governor’s plan also intended to produce revenue of at least 10 percent over the prior year beginning with the December 2013 distribution to allow counties to cope with the changes, Arndt said.
The sales tax question also got some ink in the campaign waged between Regal and Stahl.
Several flyers mailed to constituents by the Ohio Democratic Party condemned Stahl for supporting the sales tax without representation. One flyer shows a partial view of a man with his finger plugging his ear. The quote next to it reads “Mark Stahl raised your taxes and didn’t even ask you about it. Another flyer shows a dramatic close up of Stahl. Next to it in bold words it states: “Mark Stahl raised your taxes without asking your opinion. That is not right! Having three meetings at the Courthouse and then deciding to raise the sales tax isn’t leadership. Stahl is unaccountable and unacceptable. Mark Stahl is not listening to you. A million dollar tax hike without public approval? We can do better!”
Despite those statements made by the Ohio Democratic Party, Regal stands by her affirmation on the sales tax vote.
Those statements were made by the Ohio Democratic Party and she was not consulted on the campaign literature, Regal said. “I did not know what was going to be on the card,” she said.
“In my campaign, it was not an issue,” said Regal, who served as county auditor prior to the run for commissioner. “I had supported what they had done.”
Chris Redfern of Catawba Island is the Ohio Democratic Party chairman. He notes that the party sent out nearly 20 million pieces of literature for local races to the presidency across the state during the 2012 campaigns. The literature was sent out on behalf of candidates but not necessarily at their direction, Redfern said. That is, candidates were not always consulted regarding every piece of literature or campaign issue sent out on their behalf, he explained.
The Democratic Party took the stance on the sales tax issue because the former board of commissioners had plenty of time to review the temporary tax three years ago and had an opportunity to take the issue to the vote.
Conditions surrounding the February vote were much more complex, Redfern said.
“These commissioners did not know that Gov. Kasich was going to retreat from his stance on sales tax,” Redfern said. “ … The state has cut the local government budget significantly. They responded immediately on how to proceed in what was the county’s best interest. Oddly enough, they were put in that position when the state began stripping away billions of dollars in local government funding.”
At the time, holding off on a vote was a risk the county could not take, Regal insisted.
In fact, the newest commissioner considers the re-examination of the sales tax for renewal or permanent status had been put off too long. “I thought it needed to be looked at sooner,” she said, noting discussions should have been under way with the former board in 2012.
That jumpstart would have quelled anxiety regarding the sales tax as the governor and others began pitching sales tax reform. The governor’s budget takes effect July 1 – the same date as the permanent sales tax begins. County officials worry that conflict jeopardizes their sales tax implementation.
“It appears that the sales tax will be going through,” Prosecutor Mark Mulligan said in a May interview. He based that on the fact that no one had filed a referendum with the county board of elections to challenge the county sales tax and that sales tax reform at the state level is faltering. The financial situation also pushed him to resume his personal campaign to get raises for courthouse employees who have go without them for five years.
Redfern suggests that the Republicans using the “campaign issue tactic” regarding the sales tax now is just sour grapes over Stahl’s lost re-election bid.
It wasn’t the sales tax implementation that had an impact on the election turnout but misuse of county property, Redfern said.
“Mark Stahl used county resources in his personal business,” the chairman said, pointing to a lawsuit alleging the same.
Diversified Insurance Service LLC of Elmore sued Stahl and Lowe Insurance Services on Sept. 25, claiming Stahl conducted personal business for Lowe from his county office and that his wife had taken trade secrets when she left Diversified. A jury will hear the details in 2014.
But in recent months, Stahl, who claimed he had been maligned in campaign literature sent out by the Ohio Democratic Party addressing the claim, dropped his complaint.
Why? Simple, Redfern said. “He knows he’s guilty.”