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Speakers say nix arena in sales tax propsal

6/12/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

DOWNTOWN AKRON — At the second and final public hearing June 9 regarding County Executive Russ Pry’s proposal to increase the county’s sales tax by 0.25 percent, Summit County Council members heard from several opponents, most of whom called for a revision of the proposal to delete the portion suggesting some of the potential revenue go to a Downtown Akron arena project.

Council is charged with deciding whether the proposal should be placed before county voters on the Nov. 4 General Election ballot.

In April, Pry submitted the proposal that would increase the county’s sales tax to 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 to pay the expenses of administering the sales/use tax levy.

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.

The hearing also included a detailed presentation by Jason Dodson, chief of staff for Pry’s office, and comments by Sheriff Steve Barry and Assistant Sheriff and Chief of Corrections Greg Macko regarding the need for more staffing.

According to Dodson, the new tax would bring in $20 million annually. Of that revenue, $3.7 million to $4.5 million would go to operations and maintenance of the jail; $5.3 million would go to the 800 MHz emergency radio system and the 9-1-1 dispatch system; $2 million would go to county capital improvements; $7 million would go to the arena; and $1.2 million to $2 million would go to the county’s additional General Fund needs, he said.

Nearly two dozen other speakers approached Council to make their opinions on the subject known. As at the first public hearing held June 2, several of the speakers were public officials voicing their support. [For more on the June 2 public hearing, see our June 5, 2014, edition or visit www.akron.com.]

This time, proponents included a mayor, a township trustee, at least three fire chiefs, a local reverend, several Downtown business leaders, a pair of trustees from The University of Akron (UA) and local activists.

Opponents, in contrast, were all concerned citizens. At the first public hearing, no one spoke in opposition to the proposal.

This time, several speakers told Council they understand the need for an increase in sales tax to go toward public safety needs. However, opponents said the proposal needs to be rewritten without including the arena project — a message echoed several times.

“Why are my tax dollars going to benefit The University of Akron?” asked South Akron resident Vince Felber. He signed in as a proponent of the issue, but he chose to speak as an opponent of the issue after he explained he favors two-thirds of the proposal.

West Akron resident Carl Buck, who identified himself as an alumni of UA, added, “I don’t think The University of Akron needs my tax dollars for an arena.”

John Sans, also from West Akron, said he believes it would be foolish to raise taxes for anything that isn’t utterly essential as so many young professionals are choosing to move out of the area.

“It’s crazy to try to raise taxes when your tax base is leaving,” he said. “If you raise taxes, you make the place unattractive.”

Ken Burkins, also from West Akron, argued “a vast majority of citizens” would not benefit from an arena and also urged Council to separate the issues.

Council’s five-member Finance Committee reconvened following the close of public comments. On their committee’s agenda, second readings of legislation proposing the sales and use tax be decided by voters was met with additional concerns from Council members.

Council members Bill Roemer (R-at large) and Gloria Rodgers (R-District 3), neither of whom sit on the Finance Committee, both expressed their concerns about the legislation, prompting a point-by-point rebuttal from Dodson.

Roemer said he wanted to put several questions about the proposal on record, adding he conducted a survey of about 300 people. About 90 percent of those surveyed said they would not support an increase in sales tax if it were tied to an arena project, said Roemer.

Roemer’s laundry list of concerns included questions about interest rates, the growth rate of the sales tax, acquiring the land needed for the arena, downtown parking, funding for the 800 MHz system, the perpetuity of the tax and storm water and sewer issues across the county not being addressed in the proposed legislation.

“Those are some of the things I would like to explore between now and next week when we come to a vote,” he said.

Rodgers added her concerns regarding not having contracts with UA and the Development Finance Authority in place to carry out agreements for the arena and the lack of a sunset clause (expiration date) in the legislation.

Ultimately, the Finance Committee came to a unanimous vote to recommend Council adopt the legislation as read that evening. Council is expected to vote at its meeting next week.

Council will next meet June 16 at 4:30 p.m. for caucus, followed by a regular meeting in Council Chambers on the seventh floor of the Ohio Building, 175 S. Main St. in Downtown Akron.

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