LISBON - Columbiana County commissioners have received a second infusion of casino tax money, giving almost all of it to underfunded county offices and in doing so delivering a clear message to those communities asking for a share.
Commissioners recently received $187,414, representing its second payment from taxes generated by Ohio's first-ever casinos that opened in May. Commissioners promptly appropriated $182,679 to the auditor, juvenile court, common pleas court, prosecutor and elections board.
Commission President Mike Halleck said they were fortunate to have the extra money at this time to give the offices, which were otherwise expected to run out of funding before the end of the year.
"The check has been a great relief for that reason," he said.
Ever since the first casino tax check in the amount of $93,898 was received in May, a number of cities, villages and townships have adopted resolutions requesting commissioners share the money with them. It has also become an issue in the race for the two commissioners seats that are up in the Nov. 6 election, with candidate Joe Csonka saying he would share the tax money with communities rather than keeping it all for the county to spend.
Halleck, who is not up for election, disagrees, saying they already help these same communities, either directly by sharing their federal grant money or indirectly in the form of county services. In fact, he said 82 percent of all county general fund spending is for agencies whose services benefit every city, village and township in one manner or another.
"If you don't have enough money to run county government, that's our first priority," Halleck said. "If county government cannot function, those services are compromised."
Halleck also pointed out that in the 1990s cities began closing their jails and charging the offenders they arrested under state code, which requires those arrested be incarcerated at the county jail and become the county's responsibility. Those communities have never paid the county for the expense of housing their arrestees.
"They shifted responsibility because they couldn't afford to run their own jails," he said, adding commissioners built a larger county jail in the 1990s due in part to the additional inmates they were being required to incarcerate.
Halleck said when the roof needed repaired at the county jail this year it cost $265,000, with some of the money coming from the first casino tax check. "That is just one example where this money goes," he said.
All three commissioners have said they might be open to making some of the casino money available to communities who approach them with a project that needs funded, similar to the approach they take for sharing the county's annual allocation of federal Community Development Block Grant money.
But Halleck pointed out the county lost $600,000 in state funding this year and is scheduled to lose another $340,000 in 2013. Commissioners also need to plug a projected $500,000 shortfall in the employee health insurance fund.
On other hand, revenue generated by the county's two sales taxes totaled $12.2 million through October - an increase of $1.2 million over the same period last year. Halleck said the monthly figure declined in October, however, a possible indication the spending spree resulting from shale gas leases is winding down.
Halleck would also like to use excess casino money and sales tax revenue to provide the sheriff with additional funding in 2013 and possibly hire a county development director.
"That's the problem in this county. There's been no forward thinking, no planning," he said.