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County asking voters for 2-mil levy

The number of dollars flowing out of Lawrence County’s general fund is increasing, but much to the dismay of local officeholders, the number of dollars flowing in is not.

Thursday, Law-rence County Commissioners took a first step in a process that may turn the tide of its going-out-faster-than-its-coming-in situation. They asked the Lawrence County Auditor’s Office to certify a two-mil levy for the November ballot.

The two-mil levy would fund the county’s cost of South East Ohio Emergency Medical Services (SEOEMS), which is roughly $1.2 million annually. The money in the county’s half-cent sales tax that now goes to pay for ambulance service would be used for the general fund. The two-mil levy would generate an estimated $1.3 million. The levy would cost a homeowner with a $50,000 house approximately $31 annually; it would add $62 annually to the tax bill for a $100,000 house.

The problem

Lawrence County Auditor Ray T. Dutey attended the Thursday commission meeting with his Chief Deputy Auditor, Chris Kline. Dutey pointed out that while taxes and levies are not popular, the county has little choice in how it can bring in money to pay for essential services. He said other officeholders he has talked to also approve of the idea.

“I know it’s hard to pass a levy, but something has got to be done,” Dutey said.

He said if the county continues to spend at its current rate without some kind of change, the county general fund could be out of money by October. While the levy would not take effect until January, it would help alleviate some of the same worries next year, since a tight budget has been a familiar scenario for years.

“Other counties have levies for veterans and the health department and other services and we don’t,” Kline said. “And everyone expects the general fund to absorb all this and we can’t.”

Dutey said raising fees is not a possibility for many officeholders since the state sets the amount that can be charged for various services and documents and some fees are at maximum rate now.

Commissioner Doug Malone pointed out that laying off employees has already been done: commissioners restructured the county’s 911 center and emergency management agency earlier this year, eliminating four jobs. The decision was painful but necessary.

“I was not an easy thing,” Malone said. “We laid off people and one of them came up to me and said, ‘Are you proud of yourself?’”

A study last year showed Lawrence County offices are not overstaffed for the population they serve and the amount of work performed, and this true when Lawrence is compared to other counties in southern Ohio.

Even with the school levies on the books now, Lawrence County is ranked at or near the bottom of Ohio’s 88 counties in terms of taxes. Commissioner Jason Stephens pointed out that a major portion of the money that flows into the county treasurer’s office every year from property tax collections actually goes to the county’s seven public school districts.

“The county itself receives a very small percentage of

this,” Stephens said. “Most of it goes to schools, the overwhelming majority. It has nothing to do with the sheriff’s office, juvenile court. Most of it does not go into the general fund.”

Kline said the shortage of money lately means some bills have simply not been paid — even the important ones.

“One of these days we’re going to come to work and the doors will be locked because the electric has been shut off,” he said.

The county’s financial strain is not a new refrain for commissioners.

“This is something we’ve talked about all year long,” Commissioner Jason Stephens said.

The cause

One of the biggest drains on county money is the numbers of people committing crimes. County officials once estimated that 75 percent of the county’s general fund goes to fund services aimed at those who break the law, to arrest them, incarcerate them, prosecute them, ensure their rights to a fair and speedy trial are observed, provide them with defense council and then supervise them when they are placed on probation.

In a letter to commissioners this week, Sheriff Tim Sexton said the average number of inmates he housed in his jail increased in July to 74 — up from 72 in June. This figure does not include prisoners housed out of county in other jails. As of this week, 23 Lawrence County inmates were housed in Scioto County, one in Washington County and another nine in Morrow County. The bills for these inmates totaled $46,000 for June and July alone.

The cost of having so many people in jail continues as those people go through the court system.

Dutey said some local attorneys have approached him about getting paid for services they have rendered to indigent clients — a majority of people going through the court system in Lawrence County are indigent and therefore entitled under the law to a court-appointed , but he has told the lawyers the county has no money to pay them.

The process

Commissioners are in a bit of a beat-the-clock game with the levy: Aug. 23 is the deadline for getting an issue on the November ballot. Before it is placed on the ballot, it must be certified by the auditor’s office and then checked by the board of elections.