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Proponents speak on merits of tax increase

6/5/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

DOWNTOWN AKRON — The opposition remained silent June 2 during the first of two public hearings Summit County Council held on a proposal from Summit County Executive Russ Pry to increase the county sales tax by 0.25 percent.

In April, Pry submitted a proposal asking for a 0.25 percent increase in sales and use taxes to appear on the Nov. 4 General Election ballot. The additional taxes would provide revenue to: operate and maintain the Summit County Jail; acquire, construct, equip or repair permanent improvements for the county’s 800 megahertz (MHz) emergency radio system, county 9-1-1 system, county-owned facilities and a county-owned arena; the county’s General Fund; and pay the expenses of administering the sales/use tax levy.

If approved by voters, the bump would bring in $19 million to $20 million annually, according to Pry’s office. About $7 million annually would go toward building and supporting an $80 million arena for concerts and sporting events across the street from Canal Park in conjunction with The University of Akron (UA) and in cooperation with the City of Akron, according to Pry’s office. The arena would replace the James A. Rhodes (JAR) arena as home to the Zips basketball program, according to UA officials.

Currently, Summit County residents pay a 0.5 percent sales tax to operate county government, the lowest in the state along with Stark County, according to county officials. Summit County’s current total sales tax is 6.75 percent.

Following a 43-page PowerPoint presentation by Jason Dodson, chief of staff for the Executive’s Office, offering an in-depth look at where the money would go, Summit County Sheriff Steve Barry weighed in on the Summit County Jail’s need for more staffing. Then, a dozen other individuals took turns adding their endorsements, including a litany of public officials representing various communities in Summit County. Several police chiefs and a fire chief spoke on the merits of the proposal, along with a local reverend, a former service director for the City of Akron, the chair of the Greater Akron Chamber, a Downtown Akron small-business owner and the owner of the RubberDucks. No one spoke in opposition of the proposal.

Dodson’s lengthy presentation focused on the county’s history of fiscal responsibility, particularly since 2007, during a recession that resulted in reduced revenue going to the county’s General Fund by more than $12 million.

Dodson also focused in on the spending priorities for the estimated $20 million in potential revenue from the proposed tax, explaining in detail a trio of public safety needs.

He also talked about the potential arena that could be built with sales tax funds, noting that while voters may form their opinions on the sales tax based on what they think about the arena project, the major proceeds from the new tax would be routed toward public safety needs.

Over the first five years of collection, said Dodson, $69.5 million would go toward the county’s public safety and capital needs and $35 million would go toward a county-owned arena.

Currently, sales tax in Summit County generates $40 million annually for the general operation of county government, according to Dodson. The increase would still keep Summit County among the five lowest counties in the state for sales tax rates, Dodson said.

Since 2008, the county has reduced its annual budget — currently $478.4 million — by $98 million, said Dodson, largely reflecting a reduction in staff by 20 percent.

“The cuts can only go so deep,” he said. “We are at the straining point with several of the operations here at the county.

“The primary point of pressure comes within our public safety operations,” particularly at the Summit County Jail, on the county’s 800 MHz emergency radio system and on the county 9-1-1 system, he said. Low staffing levels have caused safety issues among deputies, civilian workers and inmates at the jail, Dodson said, a point echoed by the sheriff.

Barry said jail overcrowding is not the problem. At maximum levels, the 25-year-old jail can house 671 inmates, he said. That morning, there were 642 inmates — and only 20 employees on site, he said.

“It is unsafe, and it needs to be changed,” he said.

As a result of understaffing, inmates remain locked up for “way more hours than they should be” and programs are limited, said Barry. Understaffing also has led to numerous employee grievances being filed, he said. Dodson said the county is also at increased risk for lawsuits — with a number of them already having been filed — as more deputies, civilian workers and inmates are injured.

To restore staffing levels and provide $500,000 million annually for the jail’s capital needs, the total annual cost would be $3.7 million to $4.5 million, said Dodson.

The county’s 800 MHz emergency radio system, Dodson said, requires an $11 million to $15 million infrastructure upgrade, which in part will be passed on to communities using the system through user fees.

Console and radio replacements will add costs ranging from $7.6 million to $21.9 million to communities and entities in the county that use the system, Dodson said.

In addition, the county’s aging 9-1-1 dispatch system should be consolidated with Akron and replaced, requiring a build-out for operating space, said Dodson. The upgrade is needed to make the system Next Generation 9-1-1 compliant, allowing people to text emergency needs and send videos to dispatchers, according to Dodson.

The total annual cost for the radio and dispatch systems needs would be $5.3 million, according to Dodson.

Dodson added the county’s capital needs also have sat on hold, requiring $2 million annually to maintain, repair and improve county buildings and for necessary equipment, vehicle and technology purchases.

As for the proposed $80 million arena, said Dodson, the county would be responsible for $7 million annually for 23 years for design, construction, debt service and capital and operating reserves.

In total, the tax increase would cost the average county taxpayer around $47 a year, said Dodson.

The other proponents who spoke on the issue reiterated the needs for the public safety improvements and the arena.

Later that evening during their regular meeting, Council heard second readings of legislation to place the tax increase on the Nov. 4 General Election ballot. [For more on the Summit County Council meeting, see Page 5.]

The next public hearing on the sales tax proposal will be held June 9 at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers on the seventh floor of the Ohio Building, 175 S. Main St., following committee meetings scheduled to begin at 5:35 p.m.

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