What is county’s backup plan?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 4, 2013

Now that the Lawrence County Commissioners — two of them at least — have chosen not to even ask voters how they felt about “Plan A” to address the long-standing problems with funding for emergency services, the giant question remains: What exactly is “Plan B?”

Lawrence County Auditor Jason Stephens worked with Sheriff Jeff Lawless and EMS Director Buddy Fry to put together a plan that would stabilize 911 and the ambulance service for at least the next five years while also freeing up as much as $1.6 million each year in the county’s 1/2 percent sales tax fund that could be used to address problems at the Lawrence County Jail and to maintain manpower in the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office.

It also could have allowed general fund monies to go toward economic development.

But the proposal would have required property owners — who although they may feel they are taxed to death are actually paying lower taxes than citizens in any other Ohio county — to approve two tax levies that would create new, dedicated revenue streams for emergency services.

It is important to remember that the commissioners weren’t being asked to implement these levies but simply whether or not they wanted to ask voters if they approve of them.

Yet the proposal didn’t even get enough support to be voted on by the commission with Bill Pratt making a motion for it and Les Boggs opting not to offer a second. Commissioner Freddie Hayes, who said publicly that he opposed it, wasn’t at the meeting. Hayes’ stance is interesting in and of itself considering he ran for election on a platform of standing up for public safety.

I appreciate Boggs clearly outlining his objections, several of which are valid reasons and others that are downright ridiculous. What he didn’t offer was a plan to address the continued trend of emergency services needing way more than the revenue provided and the fact these agencies are likely headed for massive layoffs within the next year if something doesn’t change.

Hayes hasn’t offered an alternative either and said the county is “not that far in the hole.” That is kind of like saying someone is a little bit pregnant. Either you are or you aren’t.

This proposal wasn’t perfect but, standing on its own merits, it was still a plan worth putting in front of voters and letting them decide.

Personally, I wouldn’t have advocated actually voting for it until county officials also created a plan that outlined expense cuts and efficiency improvements throughout the county, not just emergency services, as well as provided a detailed explanation of how these funds would be spent.

If it just meant more raises, politically motivated hirings and continuing benefit packages that are out of touch with reality, voters could have said no. More money won’t help if the county doesn’t do more to continue to change the way it operates.

But, to not even give voters the opportunity to decide if these services are important to them is an absolute disservice. This seems to be the type of short-sighted approach and political posturing that has stymied the county’s growth for decades.

So, once again, what is Plan B?

Is the county going to have to drastically cut these services? Will 911 or the ambulance service be eliminated entirely? Where are we going to put criminals if the jail is closed down? Is the county just going to continue to scratch and claw to get by each year without making any fundamental changes?

There may be a better solution out there. But, so far, this is the only plan even put on the table.

Commissioners Boggs and Hayes now have a responsibility to create a proposal that offers very clear contingencies as to how the county will handle its budget under a variety of scenarios that could likely occur in regards to revenue.

People want to talk about growing the economy and attracting businesses, but that will never happen if we cannot provide basic public services that create a desirable quality of life.

Lawrence County voters are going to have to decide what kind of community they want to call home and county leaders have to give them the opportunity to provide an answer.


Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCaldwell_IT.