Published 11:11 pm Saturday, January 16, 2010

It’s been a continuing story for years: Lawrence County officials talking of tight budgets, rising costs and trying to find money to meet all of the county’s needs.

Thursday, the county commission took a step toward asking voters to contribute more money in return for better public services, particularly public safety. Commission President Jason Stephens presented a motion to ask the auditor’s office to determine how much money could be generated with a 2.5 mil property tax levy.

The problem

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The county commission enacted a $13 million general fund budget late last year and it included a 10 percent cut in salaries for every office. In so doing, the commissioners carried on what is becoming an annual routine at the Lawrence County Courthouse: making cuts.

The year 2010 will be at least the fourth year the commission has slashed spending in an attempt to stave off red ink.

Interest income, sales tax proceeds and state contributions to county governments are on the downhill slide at the same time costs are going up.

Every office at the courthouse has cut staff except for the sheriff’s office. But while Sheriff Jeff Lawless has not given any employees the pink slip, he has held off replacing four employees who have retired, died or resigned to take jobs elsewhere.

Stephens pointed out the county has cut annual spending — salaries, supplies and other regular necessities — by $2.5 million since 2007. Stephens said in spite of the fact the county has cut funding even for essential services, the cost of providing these essentials continues to rise.

That means the county is just treading water each year. A tax levy would allow the county to continue providing the essentials — police and ambulance service — without cuts to these services, he said.

Two-thirds of Lawrence County’s budget is spent on public safety.

Right now emergency services are paid for with general fund monies, the same pot of cash that funds most every other service in the county.

While the ambulance service contract with Southeast Ohio Emergency Medical Services (SEOEMS) is paid for out of the county’s half-cent sales tax proceeds, the sheriff’s office has no dedicated revenue stream.

Stephens likened the county’s emergency services funding situation as a three-legged stool with one leg shorter than the other two, the short leg being the sheriff’s office.

“Right now the stool is wobbly,” he said. “If it (the levy) passes we have a road map for how that money will be used in the future and stabilize that stool.”

If it doesn’t pass, the commission will likely make more cuts in areas that have not yet been cut before and the most likely area is emergency services like SEOEMS.

Commissioners point to other counties that are also struggling, such as Jackson, which has had to cut its budget by 45 percent. Jackson has recently closed its soil and water conservation office and axed its 4-H program (think county fair) because these services are not mandated by the state.

Jackson County has also laid off sheriff’s deputies. Lawrence County has managed to avoid deep cuts at the sheriff’s office and Stephens would like to continue avoiding it.

“The longer I’m commissioner the more I’m convinced the primary role of local government is public safety,” Stephens said.

Commissioner Doug Malone pointed out at Thursday’s commission meeting that there are few options for counties to raise money. The county can’t raise the sales tax above the 7.5 percent it is now.

Both Malone and fellow Commissioner Les Boggs agreed with Stephens to ask the auditor’s office for information but neither said they would actually support placing a levy on the ballot at this time. Boggs said he had not seen information on it until Thursday.

A possible solution

Lawrence County Chief Deputy Auditor Chris Kline said the 2.5 mil levy would bring in $1.839 million annually. For a homeowner with a $100,000 home, the levy would add $76.56 to the annual tax bill.

County officials have frequently pointed out that Lawrence County has the lowest taxes of any county in the state of Ohio.

Lawrence County’s rate is 45.93 — one third that of the most taxed county, Cuyahoga County, and substantially less than some of its neighbors of equal size and socio-economic standing.

The county that is most comparable to Lawrence in terms of population, size and socio-economics is Washington County. Its tax rate is 55.02. Athens County’s tax rate is 80.89, Meigs’ is 47.36 and Scioto County’s is 59.96.

The idea of a levy was mentioned a little more than a year ago and at that time, SEOEMS employees and other concerned citizens, fearing the county would cut ambulance service to balance the general fund budget, passed a petition to put an EMS levy on the ballot.

The county commission requires any group wanting to place a levy on the ballot to first circulate a petition that helps educate voters about the issue wanting money and helps backers gauge whether they have sufficient support for it.

The backers of the levy collected more than 1,200 signatures. SEOEMS Paramedic Terry Dolin said more than 400 signatures were collected in one day.

Dolin said a number of people questioned why the county needed an EMS levy.

“Many people thought we have a levy now,” Dolin said. “They didn’t realize it had been removed. But once we told them, they said they would be in favor of it.”

While the commissioners had nothing to do with the levy petition, some residents accused the commission of instigating the idea.

Malone said he has never asked anyone to circulate a petition for a levy although he supported the idea to ask the auditor’s office for specifics.

But Stephens said a levy may be an idea whose time has come.

“I think this is an opportunity to look at adding some long-term financial stability to Lawrence County,” Stephens said.

The county did have an EMS levy. It was approved by voters in 1995, passing on a 57 percent to 43 percent vote. In 1998 the levy was removed and one-half percent added to the county’s 7 percent sales tax to fund emergency services.

Both Athens and Jackson counties, the other two counties in SEOEMS, have emergency services levies.

Right now the county pays roughly $1 million a year to fund ambulance service in the county. With the ambulance service funding coming from the county’s beleaguered general fund, there is little money to improve the service, Stephens said.

He pointed out the county has not bought a new ambulance since 2006, and all of the ones in operation now are getting older and will need to be replaced.

If the levy passes, approximately $1 million of the levy profits would pay for the actual ambulance service, Stephens said.

The remainder would be used to pay for new ambulances and possible new ambulance stations, such as along State Route 93 between Ironton and Oak Hill.

The levy would free up roughly $1 million of general fund monies that could be used for, say, road patrol deputies and an enhanced inter-agency communications system between emergency services groups.

This year the county has budgeted roughly $876,000 just for road patrol deputies. A 50 percent increase would add approximately $433,000 to that.

“This would allow for a significant increase for the sheriff’s office and just crime fighting,” Stephens said.

Lawless, already struggling with a manpower shortage and escalating costs because of increasing crime, welcomed the idea of having more dollars to fight that crime.

“Any additional money is going to be a tremendous benefit to protecting the citizens of Lawrence County,” Lawless said.