ST. CLAIRSVILLE - State Rep. Jack Cera spoke to commissioners, mayors, township trustees and other local officials Wednesday concerning efforts to regain funding that has been steadily cut to the state's municipalities.
He, State Rep. Ronald Gerberry and eight others served as joint sponsors to introduce legislation that would reinstate the Local Government fund back to the funding level of 2005.
House Bill 17 has been assigned to the House Finance and Appropriations Committee for consideration.
T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK
STATE REP. Jack Cera, right, reviews the House Bill 17’s potential during a Thursday meeting with Greg Bizzarri, Richland Township trustee.
"The purpose of this legislation is simple. Our local communities are struggling to make ends meet and provide basic vital services. We can alleviate their financial burden by reinstating cuts to the Local Government Fund. The safety of our citizens is at risk and I believe enough is enough," he said.
Cera added that the state budget was balanced to the detriment of local governments and schools. He said that now that the state is projecting a large budget surplus Ohio must help local communities recover.
He noted that townships and smaller communities feel the cuts most. Some basic services at risk in such areas include fire, police and streetlights.
"The costs keep piling up and the amount of help from the state is diminished," he said, noting a poor economy and changes in tax laws that took locally generated dollars away. "I was disappointed that the state would turn their back on local governments this way."
While all the co-sponsors are currently Democrats, Cera added he has been reaching out to Republican lawmakers. The legislature is required to give the bill one hearing.
"Taxpayers are frustrated and local governments are looking to the legislature for help. We shouldn't be cutting their funding source at at time when the economy is still rebounding," he said.
The bill would begin LGF increases in July and continue each fiscal year. Local government funds pay for a wide range of services including public, fire and ambulances, parks and recreation, public health clinics, Homeland Security and natural disaster responses.
Since 2008, when the four-year freeze of local government funds ended, money to Belmont County has been reduced from $3,263,471.26 to $2,025,705 in 2012 and $1,548,445.47 in 2013. Cera said the state's proposed budget would place about $30 million back in local government, leaving it $318 million short prior to the cut. County Auditor Andrew Sutek added that since the formula is population driven, Belmont would be on the low end of distribution.
A budget surplus of $2 billion by the state is expected by July. He said when the rainy day fund reaches a certain level close to $1.9 billion, it triggers an automatic 4 percent decrease in income tax.
Cera added that when the state had suffered a $6-$8 billion deficit, it turned to schools, and municipalities for help in balancing the budget.
The budget also lowers the state sales tax from 5.5 percent to 5 percent to broaden the base to everything except medical and educational costs. Counties are limited to a 10 percent increase in the first year, leading to a statutory reduction of the local 1.5 percent to 1.35 percent. He believes it will go into effect in September.
Sutek said this would necessitate extra expenses among businesses such as having their registers set and recalibrated. He also noted the increase in legal activities brought about by oil and gas interests, and which would fall under the sales tax. While construction projects may be exempt, other personal and related services would be incurred.
Also included in the budget is a severance tax on oil and gas.
Sutek also noted high general liability costs, adding that more cuts to local government could mean smaller communities may find themselves unable to pay councils, trustees or liabilities.
Cera asked the officials in attendance to spread the word and ask others to lend their support by petitioning at the local and state levels including the state Speaker of the House, the chair of the finance committee and the governor's office.
"This is a re-election budget for the governor," he said.
Sutek added that anyone wishing to pick up a petition in support of local government can visit his office next week.
Dave Hissom, Warren Township trustee, gave the opinion that the governor is reluctant to work with small municipalities.
"I would hope that the state representatives open their eyes and realize how devastating the loss of local government monies are to their entities," said St. Clairsville Finance Director Cindi Henry. "It's a problem that's not been addressed. I commend Mr. Cera for doing so."
"Mr. Cera had a great talk today," said Martins Ferry Mayor Paul Riethmiller when he brought the matter before city council later that evening and asking for a resolution in support. "It is about us getting our local monies back the way it needs to be. We appreciate Mr. Cera's hard work on that."
Cera said ohiochannel.org is broadcasting the budget hearings and finance committee meetings.
DeFrank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.