Hancock County voters will have to ask themselves between now and Nov. 7 how much they are willing to pay to support law and order. Their answers could go a long way in deciding whether a proposed three-quarter percent sales tax gets approved later this year.
The stakes appear to be getting higher.
A Courier story on Monday suggests that the common pleas court budget will incur a 20 percent cut in state grants over the next two years. That’s problematic since nearly 60 percent of the court’s budget comes from state grants, and because four of the grants are expected to be cut under the state budget.
The situation presents a dilemma for county officials since less grant money could mean fewer probation officers at a time when more, not less, probation officers are needed.
The county is experiencing record-setting felony crime. Through July 18, 220 people had been indicted on felony charges this year. At that pace, well over 300 indictments could be filed by year’s end.
While many of the pending charges are lower-level drug offenses, involving possession or trafficking, such defendants generally can’t be sentenced to prison. That means they’re kept in the community and subject to intensive probation, which involves regular contact and interaction with probation officers.
Reducing probation officers means probationers would have less supervision, and could result in higher recidivism. It’s hard to imagine how grant funding cuts would not have an adverse effect on court operations and the community.
The state has been decreasing local government funding for years, and the commissioners may have seen the writing on the wall.
Earlier this summer, they proposed replacing a half-percent sales tax that expires at the end of next year, with a three-quarters percent sales tax, and putting it on the general election ballot. If approved, the commissioners have said the money raised by the tax would be split equally between the general fund, flood mitigation and a building fund that would help finance a jail expansion and perhaps a county administration office.
If the probation grant cuts don’t get restored, and the sales tax isn’t passed, the options would seem limited to increasing the court’s operating budget from the general fund, which would mean budget reductions to other county offices, or to indict fewer felons. Neither option is desirable.
Flood control should remain top priority, but the county’s criminal justice system, including the courts and jail, can’t be ignored. The grant funding issue provides another reason for all taxpayers to explore what the county’s spending priorities should be. Rightfully, voters will get to make the important call come November.
Editor’s note: A public hearing on the sales tax request will be held at 6 p.m. today at the county engineer’s building, 1900 Lima Ave.
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