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Library tax error fix is complicated

YOUNGSTOWN — An Ohio Legislative Service Commission attorney said the General Assembly “could adopt legislation” to rectify an error that led to 3,300 parcels being incorrectly charged $631,000 in Mahoning County library levy payments, but it would be complicated.

In a letter to state Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan’s office about the issue, Mackenzie Damon, the LSC attorney, wrote: “It is unclear what form this legislation would take.”

Lepore-Hagan, D-Youngstown, said she’d be willing to sponsor legislation, even though it’s problematic. She said she’d do so if the county auditor and treasurer along with the Ohio Department of Taxation supported it.

But county Auditor Ralph Meacham said the resolution is “convoluted” and “difficult.” While Meacham said he’d like to have the problem resolved, a possible legislative solution is impractical.

The issue is that between 2015 and 2018, about 3,300 parcels in nine taxing districts in the county, but in school boundaries of other counties, were incorrectly billed under the 2014 tax renewal levy of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County.

Those parcels — in the boundaries of the Alliance, Columbiana, Hubbard and Leetonia school districts — were erroneously charged an average of $44.92 to $50.31 a year in property taxes.

The library didn’t benefit from the mistake made when Michael Sciortino was county auditor. Property owners incorrectly assessed taxes paid a portion that would have come from those in the library

district. The meant a small tax break for the 162,000 or so property owners in the library district.

The problem was resolved at the end of last year going forward after a resident contacted the auditor’s office about a Nov. 5, 2019, ballot issue to renew the tax. But there’s no current method to reimburse those who overpaid.

Lepore-Hagan provided a Vindicator article about the issue to the LSC, an agency that provides the state Legislature with bill drafting, research, budget and fiscal analysis.

The Legislature could approve a bill “to address this specific situation,” Damon wrote.

But she added to draft “any such legislation, we would need to know (1) whether the property owners located in the library district would be asked to pay the additional amount that they weren’t previously charged and (2) if not, where would the money to reimburse the property owners not living in the library district come from (the library district itself, which has yet has not received any windfall from the error or some other source)?”

Damon wrote if the issue was addressed through a tax credit, it could also cause problems.

“Keep in mind that not all the properties will be owned by the same person who owned the property in 2015-2018,” she wrote. “In which case, the actual individuals who overpaid the property taxes in those years would not be made whole. Similarly, if property owners located in the library district are asked to pay an additional amount, some property owners who did not live in the district in 2015-2018, but who do now, will be asked to pay amounts that should have been paid by the previous owners.”

Lepore-Hagan said, “It could create a lot of pushback. I’m not sure what would come from this.”

She added it “would be a lot of work and cost extra money” to be done. “There would have to be special state legislation.”

But if the county auditor and county treasurer and state Department of Taxation were willing to move ahead, Lepore-Hagan said she’d sponsor a bill.

“It’s a crazy situation,” she said.

Meacham said using a fictional “wayback machine” like one in the 1960s cartoon adventures of Mr. Peabody and Sherman is “the only solution.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist, he said.

“Not everyone paid their taxes in those districts or lived there for all of those years,” Meacham said. “It’s a complete hodgepodge. I don’t see us being able to go back. It wouldn’t be completely accurate. We’d have to go parcel by parcel for all 165,000 parcels. I don’t see any solution that would make everyone happy.”

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