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Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Health officials ponder tax levy

By Shelley Grieshop
Voters may see a new countywide tax levy on the ballot next spring to pay for health services.
The 0.35-mill property tax levy discussed by officials Wednesday would cost residents with property valued at $100,000 an additional $10.72 a year in taxes. The measure requires approval by the county health board, commissioners and auditor by Dec. 6 to be placed on the May ballot.
The proposed levy would collect $300,000 annually and could remain in place up to 10 years, according to Ohio statute.
For three consecutive years, the Mercer County-Celina City Health Department has annually collected $245,500 or 22 percent of its budget for operating expenses from the county's 23 political subdivisions - townships, cities and towns. Services received by residents include sewer/septic, well, landfill and food service inspections, nursing services, water sample tests and vital statistics.
But ongoing funding cuts to local governments by the state has put the squeeze on the subdivisions' coffers. The state is reducing the 2012 funds by 25 percent, and 25 percent of that figure in 2013. At least two townships have indicated they may not have the funding to continue to pay the fee for health services.
Jefferson Township fears the shortfall. In 2012, its state appropriation will be $11,215 - almost $5,000 less than this year - and it will owe the health department $20,519.
"Several trustees have told me they're concerned," health department administrator Dale Palmer told board members Wednesday. "They've asked if the health department would consider an operating levy to shift the costs from them."
Board members requested a special meeting of the district advisory council within the next month to discuss the proposed levy or other funding options. A date has not been set.
A levy would remove the funding obligation from the subdivisions and place it on residents across the county. Recent increases in farmland value through the Current Agricultural Use Value Assessment (CAUVA) program will shift more of the financial burden to townships, officials noted.
"The burden is heading to farmers," said attorney Rick Hoffman, a private consultant for dozens of health departments in Ohio, who spoke to the board Wednesday via phone conference.
County health commissioner Dr. Philip Masser said a new tax levy probably wouldn't be popular in today's fragile economy when many families are struggling.
"My second concern is what happens if we pass one for five years and two years from now we're defunct or they consolidate us with another health department?" he asked, referring to the state's cost-cutting plan to share services among counties.
Hoffman assured Masser that all levy dollars collected would be tallied as the county's contribution for any shared services.
Board president Dr. Ed Hosbach asked what would happen to the health department's budget if there's an increase in delinquent property tax payments.
Hoffman said not to worry.
"You can take pride in the fact that Mercer County has the lowest delinquent rates of about every county I work with," he said.
County prosecutor Andy Hinders, who provides legal guidance to the county and its subdivisions, said township trustees are in a real bind.
"The revenue shortage in townships is real," he said.
Trustees plan to reduce services such as mowing and snow plowing and possibly shift from using road salt to grit to make ends meet, Hinders told the board. They've already begun seeking new funding sources such as levies, he added.
"It's real, it's bad and it's going to get worse," he said.
Masser noted that if the district advisory committee feels a levy is the answer "it will make our decision easy."
Hinders reminded the board they "ultimately answer to the advisory council."
An operating levy in support of the health district has been in place in Auglaize County since the mid-1980s, according to health commissioner Charlotte Parsons. The current 1-mill replacement levy was approved by voters in 2005 and collects about $750,000 annually, she said.
The levy satisfies the majority of the health department's operating budget, which also is supplemented by fees and grants, Parsons added.
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