Central Ohioans shrugged off their first opportunity to weigh in on a proposed increase in the Franklin County sales tax.
At a sparsely attended public meeting Sept. 9 at county offices, only two members of the general public chimed in on the proposal, which would raise the tax on hard consumer goods such as automobiles, computers and household appliances.
Franklin County commissioners are considering raising the sales tax from a quarter-cent or half-cent on the dollar, which they say will help adequately fund government operations and allow long-term financing for a new morgue and jail at a combined cost of $200 million.
Greg Lawson, a Republican candidate for Columbus City Council, called it a bad idea.
"I think it's a misguided move at this time," said Lawson, who works for the Buckeye Institute of Public Policy, a free-market think tank.
He agreed with commissioners that central Ohio has become an attractive place to do business but he said higher taxes send the wrong message to companies looking to locate here.
Further complicating things is a half-cent tax hike in the state sales tax, part of an overall tax package that went into effect Sept. 1. In addition, Columbus City Schools also are seeking a property-tax increase this fall.
"Ohio has a very bad history of taxing everything under the sun and pancaking ahead," Lawson said.
Vietnam War veteran Dennis Tom suggested the county continue austerity measures and leave some non-essential efforts, such as funding anti-obesity campaigns, to volunteer dietitians and physical education majors at local colleges.
"Everybody needs to tighten their belt now," he said.
Tom, who was representing Buckeye Chapter 500 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said he is concerned about the future of Veterans Memorial, which, according to a recent proposal, could be torn down and replaced with a state-of-the-art facility.
However, commissioners have not indicated whether any of the money generated by the higher sales tax would go toward funding that development plan.
The local sales tax hasn't been increased since 2005.
In support of the proposal, commissioners trumpeted local successes, including the fact that Franklin County is among the seven fastest-growing counties in the United States and has the only AAA bond rating of any Ohio county.
They also lamented the prolonged effects of the Great Recession and growing level of dependency on county services by the disadvantaged.
The current sales tax rate in Franklin County is 7 percent. An increase of a quarter-cent on the dollar would bring in an estimated $48 million annually.
If commissioners approve a tax increase, it is expected to go into effect Jan. 1.
County Administrator Don Brown said a quarter-cent hike would cost a family of four, making $50,000 a year, an extra $28.75 annually. To put a finer point on it, Brown said the tax would result in an extra $2 on an $800 TV, $3.25 on a $1,300 refrigerator and $50 on a $20,000 car.
A parade of public officials, from county Prosecutor Ron O'Brien to Bruce Harkey, executive director of the Franklin Park Conservatory, said they are stretching their budget dollars as far as they can but won't be able to do that indefinitely.
Jim Goodenow, director of the county's public facilities, said that, for example, most of the department's fleet automobiles have 108,000 to 177,000 miles on them and no new pool vehicles have been purchased in eight years.
"We're deferring really critical maintenance decisions," he said.
The final public meeting about the sales tax proposal is scheduled at 9 a.m. Sept. 24 at the government center, 373 S. High St. downtown.