The Athens County Commissioners plan to hold two public hearings this month to discuss a county effort to put a 0.25 percent sales-tax proposal on the ballot in November.
This sales tax is being proposed to fund the county’s 911 system, the Sheriff’s Office and the county’s general revenue fund, county Commissioner Lenny Eliason said in an interview last week.
This new sales-tax proposal is separate from another 0.25 percent sales-tax proposal that The NEWS reported on June 20. That one would go solely toward funding an improved county transit system. That transit-tax proposal, however, is not going on the ballot this year after county officials discovered they would need to create a new regional transit authority in order to levy such a tax. With an Aug. 7 deadline to get that tax on the ballot rapidly approaching, Eliason said there wouldn’t be enough time to restructure the whole system in order to create such an organization.
Currently, most of Athens County and Athens city’s transportation efforts are run under the umbrella of the Hocking-Athens-Perry Community Action Agency (HAPCAP), and the county would need to create a new governing body under the auspices of the county government in order to implement a transit-only sales tax, according to Eliason.
The commissioner said the general sales-tax hike is needed because the county needs more money to fund improvement on or replacement of county facilities, for one. In particular, he said the Athens County 911 and Sheriff’s offices need a new space. They both now share a building at 13 W. Washington St. in uptown Athens.
Currently in Ohio, counties are only able to levy up to 1.5 percent of a sales tax to fund their operations. Athens County’s current local sales-tax rate is 1.25 percent (although the total sales-tax rate is 7 percent, with the rest going to the state).
If voters approve the tax measure, Eliason said, half of the proposed 0.25 percent sales tax will go toward Athens County 911; a quarter of it will go toward the Sheriff’s Office; and the other quarter will go toward the county’s general revenue fund.
Currently, the county receives about $6.4 million into its general fund annually from the first 1 percent of the sales tax; the remaining 0.25 percent that’s currently being collected goes to Athens County 911 (about $1.6 million). The county’s annual budget is around $16 million, Eliason said
Eliason said that Athens County 911 has not had a change in its funding formula since its inception, despite seeing increased demand for its services.
“We originally had two dispatchers on duty,” Eliason explained. “Now we’re looking at adding a fourth dispatcher.”
He added that the county has been improving the technology used in the 911 system continually as well, so there’s been a lot of work done “under the hood” that not everybody would notice.
Sheriff Rodney Smith said that his office’s physical space is undersized and has issues with accommodations for people with disability or mobility issues (its current lobby is located up some stairs and is essentially a small stair landing). Plus, uptown Athens has well-known parking issues, Smith said, so that can mean people who need to speak with the Sheriff’s Office sometimes must walk a long way.
“We also have (rising) operating costs such as equipment, cruisers and supplies that we need,” Smith said.
The NEWS reported earlier this year that the county Commissioners are considering moving the Sheriff’s Office and possibly Athens County 911 to the former ATCO building on Campbell Street in Athens. However, the Commissioners are still waiting on an architect’s assessment of that building’s suitability for those offices, Eliason said.
Meanwhile, Eliason did say that despite issues with ADA (American with Disabilities Act) accessibility at the Athens County Board of Elections’ South Court Street office suite, the county should be able to remedy those issues without moving the office to another location. Still, improvements to the Board of Elections and other county facilities will cost money, Eliason said.
He asked people interested in learning more about the county's pitch for the sales-tax increase to attend one of the two forums coming up later this month. They are:
• 6 p.m., Wednesday, July 24, at the Athens Community Center.
• 6 p.m., Monday, July 29, in the Nelsonville City Council chambers.
ELIASON ADDED THAT roughly two years ago, the federal government mandated the elimination of sales tax on the services of Medicaid managed-care organization for counties in Ohio, meaning a significant annual loss of revenue for the county. He said in a brief follow-up interview Wednesday that the county saw a 6.67 percent drop in sales-tax revenues last year, equal to about $458,428. He said that drop was largely due to the MCO tax decrease mentioned above. He said that the portion of the proposed sales-tax increase that will go toward the county’s general fund essentially will be bringing the county “back to even” after that decrease in revenue.
County Auditor Jill Thompson provided a datasheet Monday showing that Athens County had been receiving around $850,000 in revenue per year from that tax, at least as of 2015. However, she did say that the state approved some transitional funding for 2017 and 2018 to help offset those losses.
Meanwhile, Eliason said that current discussions at the state level to move the state’s supervision of the Adult Parole Authority program to individual Ohio county levels will mean further increased expenses, upward of $800,000 to $900,000 per year.
Eliason added that further discussions at the state level around “de-felonizing” some fourth- and fifth-degree felony crimes will further shift the burden of managing those offenders to the county government and jail system.
“And the jail’s already overcrowded,” Eliason said.