Tax repeal heads to Supreme Court
The Ohio Supreme Court will decide whether Westerville voters will have their say on an effort to repeal school district taxes in November.
After the Franklin County Board of Elections last week voted to scratch an issue to repeal 6.71 mills of an 11.4-mill levy from the ballot, the group behind the repeal effort appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
At issue is whether the 11.4-mill levy passed in 2009 legally constituted a tax increase. Under Ohio law, only ballot measures that increase taxes can be repealed.
The 2009 levy replaced two previous levies, a 1.6-mill levy passed in November 1972 and a 9.8-mill levy passed in June 1979. The levies totaled the 11.4 mills that were on the ballot in 2009, but at the time, they were being collected at a combined effective rate of 3.43 mills.
That means that Westerville school district residents' tax bills did go up by 7.97 mills -- approximately $244 per year per $100,000 in property valuation -- after the measure was approved. But on the ballot the issue read as a "replacement" levy, which restores previously passed millage to its full collection.
The citizens group Taxpayers for Westerville Schools is behind the tax-repeal effort. With legal representation from the right-leaning 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, it argued in its filing with the Supreme Court that the 2009 ballot issue did indeed constitute a tax increase.
"Although the Franklin County Board of Elections did not provide a basis for its decision, it clearly acted arbitrarily if its removal of (Taxpayer for Westerville Schools') initiative petition from the ballot was based upon the erroneous legal position that the November 2009 WCSD replacement levy was not an 'increased rate of levy,' " the complaint read.
The 97-page complaint documents the district's five-year financial forecast, news reports and tax records reflecting that the 2009 ballot measure increased taxes.
In its Sept. 4 vote, the elections board unanimously sided with Westerville resident and attorney Gene Hollins, who filed the protest to the repeal issue that led to its removal from the ballot.
In filings with the Supreme Court, the board of elections and Hollins maintained that the district's taxes did not go up because 11.4 mills were previously approved, and 11.4 mills were approved again in 2009.
Lawyers for the Westerville City Schools Board of Education also filed a motion to intervene on the case, citing the impact a tax repeal would have on the district.
"The school board has already budgeted the funds resulting from this levy in a series of complex budget forecasts, relied upon this revenue in a series of bond issuances, and reported this revenue stream in a myriad of required legal forums," the filing said. "This action places the School Board's ability to do (rely on its revenue streams) in direct peril."
District officials have said if the tax repeal were approved, the district would have a $7.4-million deficit at the end of the current fiscal year.
The Ohio Supreme Court will have to make a decision on the issue before Sept. 22 to accommodate the Franklin County Board of Elections' deadline for printing ballots for the Nov. 6 election.