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EP council backs 80/20 split for new tax funds

EAST PALESTINE — With only four days until Tuesday’s primary election, Village Council took last-minute action they hope will encourage residents to vote for a proposed increase in the municipal income tax.

Acting at a special meeting on Thursday, council adopted a resolution requiring 80 percent of the additional revenue generated by the tax increase be split evenly between the police and fire departments, with the remaining 20 percent going into the general fund. The resolution originally adopted by council and will appear on the ballot requires the two departments to each receive at least 25 percent of the additional revenue.

Council is asking voters to raise the municipal income tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent, and earlier this week Councilman DJ. Yokley floated the idea of raising the guarantee to 40 percent for each department in the hopes of increasing the chances of attracting more voter support. Councilman Alan Cohen, who also serves as acting mayor, immediately threw his support behind the plan.

Yokley said at the meeting that not only did he believe 25 percent was insufficient but they needed to make a more specific commitment as to how the additional money would be spent based on comments he received from residents, and this was a way to do that. “I believe the residents need to know where the money is going,” he said.

Resident Charlsi Lehman was among 10 residents who attended the meeting, and she would like to see the additional funding spent to put more firefighter EMTs on the street, and officials said that is their intention.

She also asked if the money would be spent on pay raises, and Cohen said they could not rule that out because increasing the pay of police officers and dispatchers is needed to attract employees who will stay and not leave for better-paying jobs with other departments, which is one of the problems that needs addressed.

Police Chief Jim Brown agreed, noting all of the departments have sustained cuts over recent years “to where we’re all down to bare bones. This is desperately needed.”

Brown said there are 76 hours during the week now when only one officer is on duty, and that is a problem. Yokley referred to the recent serious assault of a village police officer responding to a domestic dispute.

“We saw an officer go down, and backup came from Columbiana,” he said, referring to the police department five miles away.

Cohen pointed out the employees agreed this year to forgo a pay raise, the third time they have done so in the past seven years, and they cannot keep asking them to do that.

Lehman arrived after attending a meeting held across town by the school board, where officials there were talking about a looming financial crisis being faced by the school district. While Lehman supports the tax increase, she wondered what would happen with the 40 percent plan in the future.

Village Solicitor David Powers was contacted after the meeting, and he said the ballot language requires council provide the police and fire departments with at least 25 percent of the new tax revenue, so the resolution increasing it to 40 percent could be altered.. Cohen said this council would stick with the 40 percent.

Councilman Doug Simpson pointed out under the 25 percent proposal the police and fire departments would receive an additional $107,000 each per year. That increases to $172,000 under the 40 percent plan.

Resident Jerry Coblentz pointed out it would be difficult, if not impossible, to take that extra money from the police and fire departments after they came to rely on it for operations, and “there’s a lot of other stuff that needs done.”

The vote was 5-1, with Councilman Brett Todd casting the lone dissenting vote. Todd said he is not opposed to the proposed tax increase but believes they are premature in deciding on increasing how much of the additional money to spend on the safety forces. He said that is a decision that should be done in consultation with whoever they hire to fill the vacant village manager position.

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