Township seeks levy to avoid projected $170,000 deficit

Bethel Twp., Clark County’s most populous, faces a $170,000 deficit and cuts in services next year unless voters approve a 1.5-mill tax levy in November.

In a 2-1 vote, trustees recently approved placing the 5-year levy on the ballot to bring in $279,000 annually for general fund expenses, which includes money for park and cemetery services as well as the salaries of staff and elected officials.

The tax, which will cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $52 annually, will appear on the ballot at the same time that the Tecumseh Board of Education is seeking voter approval for an 8.95-mill, 5-year levy. If approved, the school issue would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $274 a year.

The school levy is expected to generate $2.5 million and is sought to stave off a projected $1.7 million deficit in 2014 for a district whose voters have rejected seven consecutive school levies since 2004.

Bethel Twp. Fiscal Officer Melanie Cochran said officials considered the district’s struggles but had to act now because finances are tight and will only worsen as a result of recent state cuts.

“Unfortunately, because of the time, we don’t have enough savings to go much further out, so we really had to do something. It’s unfortunate that it happened at the same time, but I’m not sure we could avoid it,” Cochran said.

Gov. John Kasich’s budget cut the state’s Local Government Fund by about $630 million to help balance Ohio’s budget.

Kasich said then that local governments needed to find ways to operate more efficiently, including collaboration and service consolidation.

Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Kasich, along with Rep. Bob Hackett, R-London, who is a former Madison County commissioner, and Sen. Chris Widener, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said local governments need to do what they can to save without taxing voters.

“There are other ways to save money,” Nichols said. “The concept that nothing was going to change (when the state was facing a $8 billion deficit) was just unrealistic.”

Bethel Twp. officials say they operate on about a $3.5 million budget and have been frugal with township funds, but cannot plug the large holes caused by the cuts.

Three years ago, Bethel Twp. received about $60,000 in local government funds, compared to a projected $25,000 for 2013. Township officials say they were also were hurt by the repeal of the estate tax, which brought in about $200,000 in 2010.

The tax was levied on estates worth more than $338,333. When the tax was eliminated, the tax was 6 percent on estates worth between $338,333 and $500,000 and 7 percent on states with values more than $500,000.

“It wasn’t consistent revenue. Some years we would get a large amount or just a few thousand dollars. But over time it provided a nice stream of revenue,” Cochran said.

Bethel Twp. is hurt, too, by its lack of inside millage (or unvoted millage) for its general fund. Ohio allows counties, townships, public schools, and other municipalities 10 mills of inside millage.

David Crews, director of accounting and auditing for the Clark County Auditor’s Office, said Bethel Twp. receives inside millage for roads but may be the only township or municipality without inside millage for general operating funds.

Crews said the millage was established in the 1930s, and the only other entities that do not have it are the county health district and joint vocational school, which were not yet established.

“Most have it. The only one that doesn’t is Bethel Twp. … I’ve always wondered why they didn’t have it,” Crews said.

Officials said they have researched ways to get inside millage but remain unsure of the process.

Bethel Twp. Trustee Nancy Brown voted against placing the levy on the ballot.

Brown said she agrees the township needs additional funds, but says she was torn about placing a tax on the ballot at the same time as the Tecumseh school district, given their struggles.

The school district faces a state takeover without new funds, officials said.

“This is a big one for them. I just couldn’t bring myself to do this,” Brown said. “It’s not like we don’t have any money in our general fund. I think we’re good for two or three years before we would get desperate.”

Bethel Twp. Trustee President David A. Finfrock and Vice President David A. Phares voted in favor placing the levy on the ballot, saying local government funds and other cuts by the state were the lifeblood of townships, and Bethel Twp. needs to pass the 1.5-mill levy to stay alive.

“The state of Ohio balanced their budget by taking money from the townships. We’re just trying to plan ahead and be very frugal with our money,” Finfrock said. “Do I want to vote for a levy? No. But I do want (services) for the citizens of Bethel Twp.?”

Finfrock said trustees had to be proactive to prevent a major financial shortfall.

“I think we’re good for a couple years … But we’re operating on limited funds and now we’re going to be operating on more limited funds,” Finfrock said. “We’re just trying to look down the road so we don’t get hit in the face all of a sudden.”

Tecumseh Local Schools Superintendent Jim Gay said he was not concerned about having the school district and the township levy on the ballot simultaneously.

“We have budget needs and they have budgetary needs and that’s just the way it fell,” Gay said. “It’s always difficult (to pass a levy). I don’t think that’s going to make it anymore difficult.”

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