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Ruling blocks RITA ballot challenge

LISBON — Opponents of Salem’s efforts to turn income collection duties over to RITA have lost in their attempt to stop it by placing the issue before voters in the Nov. 3 election.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose ruled last week Salem’s mayor has the legal authority to contract with RITA (Regional Income Tax Agency) for tax-collection services, thereby upholding a challenge to efforts by a citizens group seeking to place the issue on the ballot.

Earlier in the year Salem council voted to replace the municipal income tax office with RITA, a non-profit agency created by the Council of Regional Governments to provide income tax collection services for cities and villages.

A citizens group opposed to council’s decision filed a petition with the county elections board seeking to place the issue on the Nov. 3 ballot for Salem voters to decide. Salem Councilwoman Cyndi Baronzzi Dickey filed a protest with the board challenging the validity of the petition effort.

At a hearing held Aug. 7, Dickey’s attorney argued legislation passed by council merely instructed Mayor John Berlin to negotiate and sign a contract with RITA. The attorney argued this is an administrative function and not subject to the voter referendum sought by opponents.

Salem city Treasurer Bret Apple, representing the petitioners, disagreed, saying the city tax administrator continued to retain authority over the income tax office, not the mayor.

The elections board deadlocked 2-2 along party lines, with Republicans David Johnson and Vic Maroscher voting to uphold Dickey’s challenge. Democrats Patty Colian and Larry Bowersock voted to reject the challenge, which would have cleared the way for the referendum to appear on the ballot.

The secretary of state is required by law to break tie votes. LaRose, in his decision, noted that in 2016 city council amended the definition of “tax administrator” to give them the option of designating RITA as Salem’s tax administrator for purposes of collecting the city income tax.

LaRose, a Republican, said city council was not changing the law but instead “addressed the means of carrying out the policy or purpose of the already existing income tax. It is administrative in nature, not legislative. In passing the ordinance, the Salem City Council and Salem City Mayor simply exercised an option already in the law since 2016.”

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