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Government and Politics

Local taxes still dominate ballots -- at least when it comes to volume
This election, as in all others, voters will decide how to fund everything from parks to schools to libraries.
This story is part of a special series.

Tim Rudell
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In The Region:

More than $100 million has been spent in Ohio on ads for the presidential race.  Throw in another $20 million or so on the Senate race. And Northeast Ohio has the most expensive congressional race in the country as well.

But, in some ways this is an election like any other, with ballots filled with the most local form of government: tax levies.  WKSU’s Tm Rudell reports

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Paying locally
In Ohio, police departments,mental health services,libraries and the like are largely founded by property taxes: those things called “levies” that use calculations called “mills” to raise money.

Local schools depend most on levies, and nearly a third of all the school districts in the state are asking voters to help.  But, they’re hardly alone.In Medina County, for example, the Board of Developmental Disabilities is asking voters to replace the existing levy there.  The new levy would be collected at today’s higher property values, and Superintendent Greg Laforme says the board needs the money.

In Ohio, police, health, human services, and library levies are sprinkled on November ballots across northeast Ohio. In Medina County, for example, the Board of Developmental Disabilities is asking voters to re-up a levy there. 
Superintendent Greg LaForme: “This is a 17 year old levy…a replacement levy…and when it was passed gas was a dollar sixteen a gallon, and we served a little over 400 individuals with developmental disabilities per month.”

LaForme believes he has a case for passage based on the program’s success with a life-time approach to developmental disabilities; an approach that has led to a big percentage of individuals becoming at least partly self-supporting. “Over 40% of our adult consumers work in some capacity in the community.  We’re proud of that, but our goal is even more than that.

What's a mill? 
Levies, no matter what their purpose are calculated in mills.  No, that’s not millions.  Rather each mill comes down to a dollar for every thousand dollars of taxable value in your home.  So in Ohio if you have a home worth th $100,000 its taxable tax value is probably around $35,000 meaning each mill will cost you around $35 dollars per year, minus some other tax breaks.

In Portage County the Health Department  is pushing to pass a point-4 mill levy, last passed in 1955.  Spokeswoman Becky Lehman notes that the property value change after fifty seven years mans the tax levy will raise more dollars, but she says the tax bill will remain small change. “For a home of $100-thousand dollars this replacement levy is asking for $12-dollars and sixty cents per year.” 

And, her department is trying to educate voters about what it does; including flu shots, and growing environmental matters. “There’s fracking and people are concerned about their water quality, and we’d like to assist in the protection of water supplies.  We’d like to install a mosquito protection program through larvaside.  And bump up our staff to meet state requirements for school, restaurant, grocery store inspections.

Tax burden
But levies add up, leading to a call in some communities—and on the part of Governor John Kasich—to eliminate redundancies.  Critics on Portage County, for example, have noted that the county has two other health departments—in the cities of Kent and Ravenna.  Lehman responds that they don’t cover the bulk of the county…which is outside their city limits.  But she also says the county department is looking into possible consolidation and partnerships.

In Stark County, the District Library has a combined 1-mill replacement and 0.7 mill additional levy on the ballot.  Associate Director Karen Miller says state fudnding, once the mainstay of all libraries in Ohio,, has been cut by nearly a third over the past decade, and the library can no longer maintain all of its services.  “We had to do layoffs, we closed a branch, we had to a lot of pretty sever things to cope with the loss of funding.  And it’s not like it was a one year cut and then everybody got the funding again, it’s been ever since then. Stark District Library combined levy, if passed, will cost the owner of a $100,000 property about $50 a year. 

Going to the voters with levy requests became more common for counties townships and villages when the latest state budget cut heavily into the Ohio Local Government Fund.   Ohio lawmakers had started the fund when they adopted the state’s first income tax in the 1930s.  It was a way to ensure some of the revenue collected by the state made it back to counties, cities and villages. 

But, with this year’s cuts, local governments are turning to local voters for operating money.
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