Utility tax taken off table

Published 10:16 am Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Source of jail funding remains unknown

Even though the public hearings are still on the calendar, a public utility tax won’t be imposed for the county to help pay for jail finances.

Lawrence County Commission president Les Boggs proposed putting on a tax on all monthly utility bills as a way to keep the current jail solvent and help pay for a new jail down the road.

Boggs said he thought that was fairer than a levy that would only affect property owners.

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“That option was removed from the (Ohio Revised) Code,” Rep. Ryan Smith, R-93, said. “A bill was passed last Wednesday.”

To keep the jail census down to the state-allowed 52 prisoners, Lawrence County Sheriff Jeff Lawless increased the number of prisoners sent out of county, including the number of jails used, about a year ago. Because of that, the fund to pay those housing costs has gone from $375,000 at the first of the year to $13,841.95 last week. However, the commission added $64,352.72 to that fund taking it from the remainder that was unappropriated.

“Everything is now appropriated,” chief deputy auditor Chris Kline said. “There is nothing else left.”

Covering such costs as well as eventually building a new jail was the purpose of the utility tax, Boggs said.

Allowing counties to impose such a tax had been on the books for approximately 50 years, Smith said. However, there was never a rule on how counties could do it.

“It was brought to our attention because Hamilton County has inquired about it,” Smith said. “The utilities didn’t like the idea and certainly the Republican caucus didn’t like the idea of charging our constituents more money without a vote of the people. We decided to take that right away out of the code. Once it is signed into law, it will be effective and gone.”

Almost two years ago, commissioner Bill Pratt made a motion to put a 2-mill levy to fund Lawrence County EMS and a 1.25-mill levy to fund 911 dispatching.

The levies were part of the Lawrence County Public Safety Funding Plan that was developed following discussions with Lawless, county auditor Jason Stephens and EMS director Buddy Fry.

The 2-mill levy would have brought in $1.6 million to the EMS to supplement the $2.3 million from patient payments to provide a budget of between $3.5 and $4 million over the next five years.

The 1.25 levy would have meant $1 million for 911 dispatching to supplement a proposed budget of between $942,500 to $1 million over the next five years.

Pratt had wanted the voters to have the opportunity to decide if they wanted the levies. However, his motion died at the meeting for lack of a second.

Even if voters did pass it, the funds could not be collected until spring following the first half tax collection. The commissioners have until Aug. 10 to put it on the general election ballot.

“I am extremely worried we are going to end up losing deputy protection because of this jail crisis,” Lawless said. “We are going to have to end up having a reduction of law enforcement services because of money going to pay for housing prisoners. I have been warning of this situation over the last few years. It has finally come to a head.”

To put on the tax, two public hearings were required.

“The legislature overturned it the same day or the day before Mr. Boggs proposed it,” county prosecuting attorney Brigham Anderson said.

Once the governor signed the bill, it will go into effective in 90 days.