Voters in 216 of Stark County’s 284 precincts approved the eight year, 0.5 percent county sales tax Tuesday. Tuesday’s vote marks the third time in Stark County’s history that voters have supported a piggyback tax. In contrast, voters have defeated or repealed a sales tax issue 11 times since it was first levied in the mid-1980s.
One of Stark County’s smallest precincts delivered the highest level of support for the county sales tax this week.
Meyers Lake, a village of 487 registered voters, had the highest percentage of voters who supported the sales tax, according to a Repository analysis of the Stark County Board of Elections’ precinct-by-precinct voting results.
Of the 294 village residents who voted Tuesday, 201 (68 percent) said “yes” on Issue 29. The next closest community was North Canton with 67 percent.
Thomas Kuhn, who has served as a Meyers Lake village councilman for roughly 20 years, was pleased that his neighbors apparently had agreed with him that the sales tax is needed.
“I know the county, as well as every other governmental body, is out of money,” he said.
THIRD TIME EVER
Countywide, voters in 216 of the county’s 284 precincts approved the eight-year, 0.5 percent sales tax, which will generate $22 million a year for county criminal justice services. The unofficial tally stands at 66,279 (56 percent) for and 52,280 (44 percent) against — a much larger margin than what political watchers and tax supporters had expected.
What also makes Tuesday’s vote notable is that it marks the third time in Stark County’s history that voters have supported a piggyback tax. In contrast, voters have defeated or repealed a sales tax issue 11 times since commissioners first sought one in 1985.
This year’s campaign, “Yes for Stark, Yes for Safety,” also overcame a combination of hurdles not seen in many of the previous elections: The still dragging economy. The stubbornly high jobless rate. The anti-government, anti-tax mood that has swept the country. And the fallout of the $3 million theft from the Stark County Treasurer’s Office.
KEYS TO PASSAGE
So why was the campaign successful this year? County commissioners cited several reasons, including the endorsements by the Republican and Democratic parties, the business community, the county police chief’s association and numerous trustees and council members.
They also believe their series of roughly 20 community meetings with residents earlier this year helped show the public the reality of the county’s strained finances and prove that they weren’t hiding information from voters. The Stark County Sheriff’s Office also opened the county jail to residents for tours, and county officials delivered presentations to various community groups, civic organizations and township, village and city boards.
“I think it was the transparency,” Commissioner Peter Ferguson said. “Us going out (for the community meetings) reassured them and it helped regained their trust.”
Shane Jackson, political director for the Stark County Democratic Party who was involved in the early polling for the sales tax, said residents appreciated the idea that commissioners were accessible even if they didn’t attend the community meetings.
Page 2 of 2 - But he believes the campaign’s success boils down to three key components:
1. That the money generated by the sales tax would be used to reopen part of the Stark County jail and get criminals off the street.
2. That the sales tax would lock in Stark County at the lowest sales tax among Ohio counties for eight years.
3. That shoppers from other counties would be helping to pay for public services with a sales tax. Otherwise, out-of-county shoppers contributed no money to county services when they purchased items in Stark County. Voters also strongly supported the concept of tax fairness during the 2003 successful sales tax campaign, Jackson said.
Jackson said the resignation of Stark County Treasurer Gary Zeigler in October was essentially icing on the cake for the campaign.
“I think it relieved some doubt for people who were on the fence,” Jackson said.
Zeigler, who was removed from office by commissioners last year following the revelation of the theft in his office by a former employee, was reinstated by the Ohio Supreme Court in June and left the office as part of a settlement with commissioners, where the board agreed to pay his state-ordered back wages and attorney fees.
Attorney Craig Conley, a vocal critic of the tax and longtime watcher of government and politics, said Zeigler did play a part in whether residents supported or opposed the sales tax.
“I’m not sure it should have been a factor, but it obviously was. A lot of people were so angry with government, they weren’t going to vote for a tax come hell or high water (as long as he was in office),” Conley said.
Conley, however, attributes the voters’ approval of the tax primarily to the campaign’s publicity onslaught that he says exploited residents’ fears that criminals would roam free if the tax failed.
“It was a scare tactic and it worked,” Conley said.
Commissioners said the passage of the sales tax hasn’t stopped their efforts to earn back the public’s trust.
“If everybody thinks everything is hunky-dory, they have another thing coming,” Commissioner Janet Weir Creighton said.
Commissioners plan to continue to meet Tuesdays and Thursdays for their public work sessions. Creighton said she wants to include the county auditor and treasurer at one of the work sessions each month to discuss the county’s revenues and expenditures.
“I think that keeps everybody on their toes,” she said.