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The Suburbanite
  • Stark sales tax beat long odds with big donors

  • The effort to convince county voters to raise the county sales tax by 0.5 percent spent $85,614 to get its message across. The amount is more than six times higher than what the campaign spent in 2009 to keep the imposed sales tax, but it’s not the most ever spent for the sales tax issue.

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  • The successful campaign to convince voters to raise the Stark County sales tax by 0.5 percent started as a long shot, campaign officials say.
    “The mood of the initial group was that we were backing a lame racehorse here,” said Dan McMasters, a co-chairman of the Yes for Stark! campaign committee. “We thought this (campaign) would be an interim thing until we got to spring and tried it again.”
    The campaign faced some familiar odds: Stark County voters’ storied anti-sales tax history. The overwhelming repeal of the imposed 0.5 percent sales tax in 2009. The growing national anti-government sentiment. And the lingering fallout of the $3 million theft from the county treasurer’s office.
    Few had predicted that the sales tax — Issue 29 on the November ballot — would pass by the margin it did: 56 percent (67,266 voters) in favor and 44 percent (53,274 voters) opposed. The eight-year tax, which takes effect April 1, will generate a projected $22 million a year for criminal justice services.
    New campaign finance reports show that the Yes for Stark! committee succeeded despite falling short of the $100,000 that’s considered the goal for a successful countywide race or ballot issue, and by spending far less than many other sales tax campaign efforts.
    Financial records filed in October and December show that the campaign raised $85,614 in monetary contributions and spent $77,202, mostly to pay consultant Strategy One for mailers, postcards and other campaign materials.
    The total is roughly six times higher than what the campaign spent in 2009 in the effort to keep the imposed sales tax, but it’s not the highest amount ever spent for a sales-tax campaign.
    During the 1987 sales-tax drive to renew a 1-percent sales tax, the campaign spent more than $100,000, Repository archives show, yet the tax was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin.
    FINANCES
    The new finance reports show that the Yes for Stark! campaign started out strong with three-figure contributions from many elected officials. Still, with less than four weeks before the election the committee had reached only a quarter of its goal.
    “When you have no money, that’s a pretty lonely feeling,” said McMasters, a State Farm insurance agent in Massillon who also serves on the Stark County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board. “(We thought) there’s just no way we can do this.”
    But the campaign plodded on methodically, he said, using strategies developed by political veterans, Commissioner Thomas Bernabei and Commissioner Janet Weir Creighton.
    They put out a straightforward message: Without a sales tax, residents’ safety was in jeopardy because the county would not have enough money to keep sheriff deputies on the roads or many prisoners in jail.
    They blitzed every social organization, community group and governmental entity’s monthly meeting to spread the message. They developed a Facebook page, sought the support of friends and family of every county employee and limited themselves to yard signs, mailers and postcards.
    Page 2 of 2 - “As we talked and as we met and as we got our story out there, we realized we were starting to turn a corner, starting to make a difference and starting to change people’s minds,” McMasters said, whose co-chairman was William V. Sherer Sr.
    The union representing Stark County sheriff’s deputies, along with the Canton Police Patrolmen’s Association and the Alliance Fraternal Order of Police, provided a visual jolt to the campaign when they spent nearly $10,000 to erect about a dozen billboard signs that depicted two jail inmates who warned that they would “See you soon” if the sales tax failed.
    BIG LIFT
    But the true game changer came in mid-October, McMasters said, when the funding arms of the Timken Co. and Aultman Hospital — Stark County’s largest employers — each contributed $15,000 to the campaign within a week’s span.
    “That was huge,” McMasters recalled. “When that happened, I think that gave everybody a big lift.”
    Ed Roth, president and CEO of Aultman Health Foundation and Aultman Hospital, said the nonprofit’s executive committee agreed to fund the campaign’s $15,000 request because it was consistent with Aultman’s mission and core values of creating a safe and positive environment for the community.
    “Without the passage of the sale tax issue, they (commissioners) would have had to cut departments in the community that would have an impact on critical public safety and other safety resources,” Roth said.
    At the time, the two donations represented more than half of the campaign’s fundraising effort, with the remainder coming from 172 individual donors, mostly county elected officials and employees.
    Campaign finance records filed in December show that all but 40 of the 200 contributors who made a donation in the final two weeks before the election were employed by the county.
    Workers employed by the courts and sheriff’s office contributed the most among all county departments, but nearly every department was represented on the contribution list, including departments such as the Department of Job and Family Services and the Stark County Engineer’s Office whose operations rely on fees and funds other than the sales tax.