Friday, February 01, 2002

Butler rescinds sales tax boost

10-year increase will be placed in hands of voters

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — In an abrupt about-face Thursday, the Butler County commissioners decided to let the voters determine whether the county sales tax is increased.

        All three commissioners voted to rescind the 10-year sales-tax boost scheduled to take effect March 1, which two of them had approved in December.

        Instead of waiting for the outcome of the referendum drive challenging the sales tax increase, the commissioners will place the increase on the May 7 primary ballot themselves.

        This strategy will allow the commissioners to build support for the tax increase by modifying the list of projects the tax could fund, and by removing the tax-without-a-vote issue from the picture, Commissioner Mike Fox said. If the referendum drive placed the issue on the ballot, the commissioners would have been locked into the current list of projects.

        “This will improve our chances of getting the tax increase approved by the voters,” he said.

        He added that he believed there would have been enough valid signatures on the referendum petitions to place the issue on the May primary ballot.

        The commissioners will hold public hearings at 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 18 and 21 at the Government Services Center's fourth-floor conference room to listen to ideas for sales tax-funded projects.

        At the end of the Feb. 21 hearing, they will vote to place the sales tax increases on the May primary ballot.

        Terry Bridge, one of the leaders of the referendum drive, said he's glad the commissioners are placing the issue before the voters.

        “I think it's a good thing,” he said. “All we were trying to do was to make certain the people had a choice about how to spend their money.”

        Cheap Tobacco in Hamilton was one of the stores that kept a stack of referendum petitions on hand for people to sign during the drive. Shirley Hubbard, store manager, said she's happy the voters will have a voice in this issue.

        “It wasn't so much that I was against the sales tax hike,” she said. “I wanted the right to vote. If they're going to take money out of our pockets, we should have the right to vote on it.”

        In December, Mr. Fox and Commissioner Chuck Furmon voted for a sales tax increase of a half-cent for six years that would drop a quarter-cent in the following four years. Commissioner Courtney Combs voted against it. All three officials are Republicans.

        The sales tax would generate $129 million for major road improvements and other projects designed to boost economic development and attract good-paying jobs.

        The referendum drive, led by Mr. Bridge and Catherine Stoker, becomes moot.

        The county Board of Elections had validated about 7,500 signatures before stopping Thursday after the commissioners' rescinded the tax increase, said Betty McGary, board deputy director. About 4,000 signatures had not yet been examined, she said. The referendum drive needed 8,843 valid signatures to place the issue on the ballot.

        Mr. Fox said the referendum leaders, all Democrats, were trying to further their own political ambitions.

        Mr. Bridge, who was defeated by Mr. Fox for the commissioner's seat in 2000, said he isn't running for any public office.

        “He doesn't know what's in my heart,” Mr. Bridge said. “I don't think he even tries to understand the other side. He tried to ramrod this tax through, and we weren't about to let it happen.”


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