Commissioners fund county improvements with casino taxes

LISBON – Drug task force agents. 4-H program. Stream monitoring. County dog pound improvements.

These are just some of things Columbiana County commissioners have funded with a portion of the $1.15 million in casino tax money they have received over the past 12 months.

“It’s been well dispersed,” said Commission Chairman Mike Halleck. “There’s been a lot of projects we’ve been able to do” because of the casino money.

The money comes from a state casino tax imposed on the series of casinos that opened around Ohio last year after casino gambling was legalized in the state. School districts are to receive 34 percent of the tax revenue, while 15 percent is divided among Ohio’s cities, with the remaining 51 percent going to the 88 counties based on population.

The money is distributed four times a year, and the county’s check arrived in July 2012 and was for $93,898. The amount has steadily increased, with the most recent check, for $332,405, received last month.

After commissioners received their first check last year they came under criticism by some cities and townships, which wanted the county to share half the casino tax money directly with them based on the LGF distribution formula.

Commissioners rejected the idea, saying they planned to share the money but want to determine how it is spent, believing they could do so more effectively since many communities would end up receiving several thousand dollars.

Since then they have spent at least $572,990 of casino tax money in the following manner:

– $30,000 for the county fair board to help construct the new rabbit and poultry barn and as seed money toward remodeling the grandstand.

– $15,000 in 2012 for the county 4-H program and $30,000 in 2013.

– $102,500 to the county engineer’s office for construction of three salt storage buildings.

– $25,000 to the county soil and water conservation district, some of which was used by the SWCD as matching funds to qualify for state operating funds.

– $39,000 to the Madison Township trustees for construction of a new storage building for township road equipment.

– $61,000 to help pay for the engineering costs involved in building the Kensington sewage treatment plant, which is being mandated by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

– $100,000 deposited into a new account to cover large-sum payouts of benefits when county employees retire.

– $2,500 to a volunteer group that is installing flow-monitoring stations along the Little Beaver Creek to protect it from being overused as a water source by local oil and gas drilling operators.

– $50,000 to Lisbon, Salem, Leetonia, East Palestine and Columbiana to defray the cost of those police departments for assigning officers to the county Drug Task Force. Commissioners offered to help departments with the cost if they would participate.

– $56,000 for repaving the three courthouse parking lots.

– $41,990 on renovating the dog pound.

– $20,000 to purchase a drug dog for the sheriff’s office and related expenses.

This is an incomplete list because the casino money is dumped into the county general fund, and there is no separate accounting of how it is spent. They did this because it was simpler than setting up a new account just for the casino money.

In other words, there is no way of tracking if the money being spent is casino tax money. Halleck has a response when that issue is raised.

“When people ask me if this is casino tax money I tell them that these are things we wouldn’t have been able to do without that money,” he said.

Halleck said the additional revenue could not have come at a better time, noting commissioners have lost nearly $1million in state funding (Local Government Funding) over the past four years because of state budget cuts.

“It’s offset a lot of the LGF we’ve lost,” he said.

Halleck said the additional source of revenue has allowed them to also address some miscellaneous improvements and repairs to the courthouse, jail and dog pound. “It’s done a lot of good,” he said.

As for those who believe commissioners were wrong for holding onto the money instead of giving it directly to communities, Halleck said he will gladly defend the decision.

“That’s why we have elections,” said Halleck, who is up for re-election next year.

“People who want to criticize that, we’ll be happy to explain it.”