Wednesday, January 16, 2002

Drive for referendum meets goal

Petitions ask for a vote on Butler sales-tax hike

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — A drive for signatures to hold a referendum on the Butler County sales tax increase pushed supporters to their goal with a 4 p.m. deadline today.

        Petition drive leaders said that as of 8 p.m. Tuesday, they had 10,500 uncertified signatures, with hundreds more to be counted. They collected more than 4,000 in the past four days.

        They need 8,842 valid signatures by today but want at least 10,500 signatures to give themselves a cushion.

        Petitioners hit neighborhoods, malls and sports events while some residents went to restaurants, bars and stores where workers were keeping petitions.

        Some people even showed up at the West Chester Township Police Department Tuesday asking where to go to sign a petition.

        “It's just a trickle that's turned into a flood of petitions coming back to us now,” said Catherine Stoker, a West Chester Township trustee heading the petition drive with fellow Democrat Terry Bridge.

        “You know, back on Jan. 3, when we were only just getting people involved, it just seemed like a monumental job to do it in two weeks,” she said at her home Tuesday as the phone rang and another petition was delivered. “Everywhere anybody can find a crowd, they are going out. We have Republicans working side by side with Libertarians and independents and Democrats. All they are trying to do is put it on the ballot so people have input in the process.”

        If there are enough valid signatures, the referendum would be held in the May primary.

        County commissioners approved a 10-year sales tax increase that will take effect March 1.

        The sales tax will jump by a half-cent on the dollar for six years and will then drop back a quarter-cent for four years.

        Two of the three commissioners — Mike Fox and Chuck Furmon — voted Dec. 17 for the tax hike to raise $129 million for major county road improvements and other projects they think would boost economic development and bring high-paying jobs.

        All three commissioners are Republicans.

        “I would be surprised if they're not successful,” Mr. Fox said Tuesday of the petition drive. “People have this impression we are just taxing to expand county government. It's going to be a tough mountain to climb but it's a fight worth having. I'm convinced that if people knew the facts and knew what was at stake, they would overwhelmingly agree with our judgment that this is the right thing to do.”

        At Cheap Tobacco on Main Street in Hamilton, 20 people signed petitions in one hour Tuesday morning. On Monday, when manager Shirley Hubbard ran out of petitions, customers lined up in the store and waited in their cars in the parking lot for an hour until new ones arrived, Ms. Hubbard said.

        “I think this is the best thing going,” Doug Schaney, 31, of Ross Township, said of the petition drive as he bought a pack of cigarettes and signed. “They shouldn't put anything on against us. We should have the right to vote for or against the tax increase.”

        “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll sign,” said Frank Bolser, 62, of Hamilton, when Ms. Hubbard asked if he would participate. “We've got enough taxes. Why do they always expect the local taxpayers to carry everything? I have a problem with that. We are carrying the load for all these deadbeats getting a free ride.”

        At the Bonanza restaurant in Fairfield on Ohio 4, where petitions are available, many customers lunching Tuesday said they already had signed.

        “I pay enough taxes,” groused Earl Wright, 81, as he popped medication into his mouth. “I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we do stop it. Otherwise, this is just the beginning. They'll tax us on everything coming down the line.”

        Other referendum supporters said they weren't necessarily against paying more taxes; they were more upset the vote wasn't put to the public first.

        “I really object that they waited until after the election to say they were going to raise taxes,” said John Stivers, 74, of Hamilton, as he scanned the menu. “They haven't explained to me what they're using the money for very well. I want a better explanation.”

        On Monday the petition drive heated up when Prosecutor Robin Piper called for those circulating the petitions to follow the law after his office received three informal complaints, one anonymous, that petitions were improperly signed while unattended at area businesses.

        Robert Mosketti, director of the Butler County Board of Elections, and Mr. Fox also said they received complaints.

        No new complaints were reported Tuesday.

        Petition circulators are required by law to be present when petitions are signed. A violation is a fifth-degree penalty punishable up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.

        The petitions must be filed with the Butler County Auditor's Office by 4 p.m. today. The auditor has 10 days to turn them over to the county board of elections.

        The board must verify that those signing the petitions are registered Butler County voters. It's not clear how long that will take but out of nearly 1,000 signatures already brought in, 785 are valid and 163 are not.

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