Jackson City Council has taken the first step toward voting to place a 1 percent city income tax on the primary election ballot this May.
At the end of Monday night's meeting of Jackson City Council, Councilman Jon Ondera made the proposal, and made the formal motion to place the income tax on the ballot in the May 8 primary election and Councilman George Kitchen seconded the motion. When Council President Eric Brown called for a voice vote on the motion, there were no audible nays and no opposition to the prospect was otherwise voiced.
However, this is only the first step in the process. Legislation will be prepared for formal action at council's next meeting, which is set for Monday, Jan. 22. Ondera also stated that the revenue from the income tax would be used to fund the Jackson Police Department. A finding in a recent state audit has left the city without a large part of the funding it has used in recent years to fund the police department.
Back on Dec. 18, council, by a 4-3 vote, approved imposing the 1 percent city income tax for the police department. However, it appears this action is about to be knocked off the track by a referendum petition aimed at stopping the tax imposition and instead placing the income-tax issue on the general election ballot in November.
The referendum petition is currently on file at the city auditor's office and after a 10-day period of public inspection will be turned over to the Jackson County Elections Office for a review of the signatures. However, the petitions have nearly twice as many signatures as are required for a successful referendum.
By state law, tax issues that are the subject of a referendum action will be voted on in only the general election. But by voluntarily placing the issue on the primary-election ballot, city leaders will know sooner their financial situation. Councilmen have asked that an emergency clause be attached to the legislation so it could become effective immediately.
Councilman Queen asked Law Director Joe Kirby if the city could take action to place the income-tax issue on the ballot while a referendum action is pending. Kirby indicated that he felt this was legally possible, but will continue to study the matter.
Income Tax Arguments
Council did not discuss the income-tax/funding issue at length, but it was addressed at the meeting by both Jackson Superintendent of Schools Phil Howard and Jackson Mayor Randy Heath.
Howard, who was making comments for the second time at a council meeting about the city income-tax/financial issue, was highly critical of the "city leadership" regarding their financial decisions and management and laid the blame at their doorsteps. He pointed out comparisons between the budget for the Jackson Police Department ($2.4 million a year) and the Jackson County Sheriff's Office ($640,000 a year) and also stated that Jackson's police budget is more per capita than nine other area cities he named. He concluded that while he personally supports the police force, the budget "needs to be in line" with other similar cities.
"Why such disparity?" Howard asked. "Well, spending gets out of control in most cases because of two reasons, overstaffing or negotiating and approving contracts that can't be sustained. So who is at fault here? Well, you definitely can't blame people for accepting jobs and for not turning down raises." Howard made it clear his remarks were not intended as "an indictment against the individuals on our city police department, nor is it meant to criticize the important work they do."
Howard also stated he is tired of hearing [from city officials] that the city can no longer transfer funds from the utility fund to the general fund, then proceeded to read quotes from a 1995-2000 city audit which refers to the city's illegal transfers from the utility funds, which the city was using to fund general government operations, which resulted in higher than necessary utility rates for the city's customers.
"If you want to pass this income tax to keep our police force, you should at least make a public commitment that if the tax issue is passed by the voters, that you will reduce the cost of city utilities significantly...Why has no one from council or administration used that logic when discussing the need for the income tax? 'Pass the income tax and we will lower utility rates' should be the theme!"
Howard also criticized the proposed new police contract from the administration which calls for 3 percent raises in the second and third years of the pact, and also council's past decision to approve substantial raises for the mayor, service director and auditor. He also felt the administration should have shared more information with council before and during contract negotiations.
"I'm not a politician, but I would say it is in Politics 101 and even Finance 101 that you don't give big raises and then immediately start talking about imposing a new tax because you don't have any money; and then immediately propose a negotiated contract that offers raises to employees and both of these scenarios have occurred."
Howard concluded, "If a reduction in force ends up being the answer to the city's financial crisis, then city council and the administration should own the blame as opposed to the residents who don't want to pay both high utilities and an additional income tax to a city whose leaders have proven that they are not fiscally responsible."
Mayor Heath used his report to council to deliver his annual "State of the City" address and parts of it were a defense of the administration's action and an argument for the income tax. He also asked the public to judge the current issues of their merit and not on what he described as "the vicious campaign of hate, animosity and sometimes just plain lies that has been launched against me personally in these last three months."
Heath stated, "If we do not find an immediate source of additional income for our general fund, Jackson will be changed forever and the community so many of us grew up in and loved for it, will be gone; and a community which struggles with disappearing jobs, more drugs, more crime and a slow decay of life, will replace it."
Heath stated he was proud of the advances the city has made during his tenure as mayor and feels the city government has spent and invested the citizens' money wisely, has reduced costs when possible and is operating with fewer employees than when he started the job. He sounded a warning about what cuts might mean for the community.
"All the advances that have been made could very well be wiped out," Heath said. "While other communities will be moving forward for the betterment of our residents, we will be regressing and sliding backwards, as will all our residents, whether it affects them today or not."
Heath also had some comparisons to offer which bolstered his appeal for an income tax. He once again noted that of the 247 cities in Ohio, 243 have a city income tax and that the three who don't, have a much higher property-tax base than Jackson. He also pointed out that the municipalities of Wellston and Oak Hill in Jackson County have more millage of property taxes than Jackson and that both also have a municipal income tax.
With the city no longer being permitted to use rents and right-of-way reimbursements to help fund the police department, Heath feels a city income tax is the only alternative to laying off police officers and putting public safety at greater risk.
"...We need to have an adequate police department and we need to have it now," Heath concluded. "Because if we let down our guard now, the drug lords from Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia will have set up a permanent shop in our community and will never go away. The decision as to our future is ours. The decision is ours as to what is fair and responsible, not necessarily the most popular. It is easy to be popular, it is difficult to be responsible, and I want to see Jackson have another 200 years of growth, love and caring for others, as we have enjoyed our first 200 years; but the crossroads are here, and now must be met."