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Lawrence County levies fail to get support

Aug. 02, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

IRONTON -- In a move that could endanger some 911 dispatching services and Emergency Medical Services ambulance services, the Lawrence County Board of Commissioners decided Thursday not to put property tax levy issues before voters this fall.

Earlier this week, several board members heard about a proposal to put a two-mill EMS levy and a 1.25-mill levy for 911 dispatching services on the November general election ballot. Wednesday is the last day to put the question on this fall's ballot. The levy would have produced about $1.6 million for the ambulance service and $1 million for 911 dispatching services.

Commission President Bill Pratt made a motion to put the issues before voters, but didn't get a second for either issue. Commissioner Les Boggs listed several reasons against the proposal, and Commissioner Freddie Hayes Jr. was out of town on vacation.

"I have a responsibility to the county to do the right thing," Pratt said. "The voters should have a choice. This is a defining moment for Lawrence County." He said the county could be going down a road it can't recover from by not putting the issue before voters.

"I'm quite disappointed," Pratt said. "We have emergency services that need funded." The 911 center which dispatches police and road patrol deputies, firefighters and ambulances is facing a $45,000 deficit this year, according to County Auditor Jason Stephens. Even if the county puts $1 million towards the ambulance service next year, it faces a $192,600 deficit. The 911 service, even if funded at $625,000 next year, could end with a $165,000 deficit.

Boggs said the levy proposals violated a 2009 board policy.

"I don't think the timing is right," Boggs said. He called it a "last-minute plan without input from taxpayers." Lawrence County residents have a $38,639 median income and can't afford higher taxes, he said.

"I'm not saying there's not a real need," Boggs said. "I'm not willing to violate our own policy. If people want it voted on, bring in petitions. We'll come up with a plan. We haven't had a meeting to discuss this. I'm not a tax-and-spend type of guy."

Pratt called the 2009 policy vague and that commissioners weren't being asked to endorse the proposal. "We're just asking to put it on the ballot," he said.

He expressed worries that with the county facing a $1 million increase in health care costs next year due to a bad claims year this year, funds for ambulance and 911 dispatching services could face cuts.

The county's half-percent sales tax funds ambulance services, 911 dispatching, road patrol deputies and the county's Emergency Management Agency. The tax brings in about $2.5 million a year. Pratt said the ambulances and dispatchers should have a dedicated funding source free of court-ordered budgets and unfunded mandates from Columbus.

The property taxes would have cost property owners with a home valued at $100,000, an extra $113.75 per year -- $70 for ambulance services and $43.75 for 911 services.

In other action, Sheriff Jeff Lawless asked the board to consider housing 20 to 30 more prisoners per day at the Scioto County Jail. The county already houses 10 prisoners per day at the jail in Portsmouth at a cost of $48 per person per day.

"Our jail is continually overcrowded," Lawless said. "Long term we need a plan to have less prisoners" at the overcrowded Lawrence County Jail in Ironton. He said Scioto County Sheriff Marty Donini is looking at opening another wing at the Portsmouth jail and wants input from Lawrence County about housing more prisoners. The board agreed to take up the issue again during a meeting Tuesday in Ironton.

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