By DENISE GRANT
Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald said he’s determined to stop Gov. John Kasich from running for re-election this fall on a “simplistic message” of tax cuts and smaller government.
FitzGerald, a Democrat, is challenging Kasich for the office. He spoke with The Courier’s editorial board Thursday.
“I don’t think he has the background or the knowledge to know how to make government significantly more efficient,” FitzGerald said of Kasich. “The state budget has increased significantly. The number of employees is slightly less, through attrition, but he never really did, in my opinion, a top-to-bottom redesign, overhaul of state government.”
FitzGerald said Kasich balanced the state budget by taking needed funding from Ohio’s schools and local governments. At the same time, the state’s sales tax, commercial activity tax and property taxes all went up, FitzGerald said.
“He never disclosed all the taxes he was going to raise to make up for it. He never disclosed that he was going to cut education to pay for it. He never disclosed that he was going to cut the local government fund,” he said.
“Kasich promised to eliminate the Ohio income tax. Remember that? … We are nowhere close to that,” FitzGerald said.
He said it was “a huge mistake” to cut local government funds to balance the state budget.
Hancock County lost more than $1 million during the cuts. The state funds are used to pay for core operations of county government, including services provided by the commissioners, sheriff, courts, auditor, treasurer and recorder.
FitzGerald said the state cuts didn’t force efficiency, but left cities, counties and townships without the money they needed to operate. Many had to lay off law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical service employees.
“A lot of them just ended up raising taxes and/or seriously cutting services,” he said. “… This whole trend of taxation being pushed down to the local level is going to make communities less viable. Some will survive, but some are going to really, really struggle.”
He said healthy local government is important.
FitzGerald said Kasich often characterizes local government funds as a handout.
“It’s not welfare to local communities. That was a deal made by both Republican and Democratic governors for decades, going back to the ’30s, that the state wasn’t going to collect taxes without sharing with local communities,” he said. “It was an explicit part of the deal when the state sales tax was instituted and it was an explicit part of the deal when the state income tax was implemented. Every single governor has respected that, until this one.”
“He wants to act like all of that hasn’t happened,” FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald, 46, said he has spent much of his adult life in public service. He is the first county executive of Cuyahoga County, the most populated county in Ohio. Prior to being elected county executive in 2010, he served as mayor of Lakewood, as a Lakewood councilman, an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor, and a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
FitzGerald said he has a proven record of saving millions of dollars without raising taxes. He said both Lakewood and Cuyahoga County used comparative data to improve performance and save money.
Ohio’s schools also use comparative data to improve performance and financial efficiency, he said.
“The schools are way ahead on this,” FitzGerald said.
“Every element and aspect of government has to be measured, defined and compared. It doesn’t always mean it gets smaller. Sometimes you find out that you are underspending in a certain area,” FitzGerald said. “In Cuyahoga County we spent more money in certain areas, like law enforcement” and information technology.
“It was very effective getting us out of financial problems, avoiding tax increases and then making investments in the things that we thought would improve the quality of life in the county,” he said.
Part of FitzGerald’s proposed overhaul of state government would include asking the private sector to review government operations and make recommendations on efficiency.
FitzGerald also favors investing more in early childhood education and helping small business.
He said the governor’s economic development fund, JobsOhio, is too focused on big corporations.
He was highly critical of the fund’s ability to operate outside of government oversight.
“The idea that you would form a multibillion economic development fund and exempt it from being audited from the state auditor is insanity,” he said.