By Stephanie Warsmith
Beacon Journal staff writer
About one in four sex offenders in Summit County has been caught out-of-compliance with registration requirements during checks by sheriff's deputies.
These sweeps might stop if the cuts to local government funds proposed in the state budget stand, Summit County Sheriff Drew Alexander said Thursday.
Alexander said the Sexual Predator Unit would be one of the programs significantly reduced if he has to reduce his department's budget by more than $2 million and cut 32 employees — mostly deputies.
''I'm not sure how much we can protect with these cuts,'' Alexander said during a round table discussion.
Alexander was among several elected officials from cities, townships, villages and county agencies in Summit County who expressed concerns over the potential impact of the state budget during an event at the John S. Knight Center in Akron.
Local state lawmakers who attended cautioned that the budget could change as it moves through the process in the next two months. State Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, said about 1,500 amendments to Gov. John Kasich's proposed budget were introduced in the Ohio House on Thursday.
''It's useful to hear from you, but it will be a substantially changed document,'' he said.
Kasich's proposed two-year budget includes a 49 percent reduction in local government funds for counties and municipalities and a 54 percent drop in the amount of money provided to local governments for the reduction in tangible personal property tax. Republican lawmakers also have introduced legislation that would eliminate the estate tax, which is another significant revenue source for local governments.
Not a 'handout'
Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic said local government funds were the result of an unofficial agreement between local and state officials in 1934. He said the state cut property taxes to give struggling residents a break and agreed to give local governments a share of sales tax revenue to make up the funding loss.
''This isn't a handout,'' Plusquellic said.
Over the years, the type of revenue going into local government funds has changed and the amount being doled out has been frozen or decreased, but never to the extent currently being considered, Plusquellic said.
''It is an outrage to have our state government break a handshake deal,'' he said.
Plusquellic thinks Ohio should change its Constitution, like California did, to dedicate a stream of revenue to local governments.
Brian Nelsen, Summit County's director of finance and budget, said the county stands to lose about $5.2 million in local government funds and $1.1 million in tangible personal property taxes.
Nelsen said Kasich and his Cabinet have said the budget would decrease unfunded mandates, but he said they would increase in certain areas. He said the budget would reduce state funds for indigent offenders and medically fragile children — expenses that counties would have to assume.
If the state cuts happen, Nelsen said, the county would need to reduce its budget by about $5.5 million, about 10 percent, by cutting salary, pension and Medicare costs.
The biggest cut would be to public safety, with nearly $3.9 million coming from the sheriff, jail, prosecutor's office, probation department and courts, Nelsen said.
Alexander said the county has about 1,000 registered sex offenders, and sweeps routinely find 20 to 25 percent out of compliance with registration regulations.
With the cutbacks, Alexander said, the county would begin doing the minimum required by law — registering offenders — and no longer would have detectives conducting sweeps.
Alexander said he also would have to shut down part of the jail, which could result in overcrowding — potentially endangering deputies and inmates.
Court programs at risk
Summit County Common Pleas Judge Patricia Cosgrove said the state funding cuts would force the court to decrease probation officers, eliminate or significantly reduce the re-entry and drug court programs, and decrease mediation programs, including one that seeks to reduce foreclosures.
Several smaller communities in Summit County also are concerned about possible reductions.
Fiscal Officer Joanne Murgatroyd said Coventry Township stands to lose $569,000 in local government funds. She said staffing cuts to make up for this would ''cripple'' the township, so a replacement or additional levy might be needed.
''To move the funding problem from the state to the local level does not seem to make any sense,'' she said.
Jim Nelson, a Bath Township trustee who heads the Summit County Township Association, said townships also are concerned about the potential loss of estate taxes. He said this would bring an ''earthquake to our communities.''
State Rep. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, a ranking member of the House Finance Committee, attended part of the forum before heading to Columbus. He said there has been ''a lot of commotion'' about the state budget.
He thinks some changes will be made, including with school funding, but he is ''not as optimistic'' about changes to local government funding.
''It's a change in priorities,'' he said.
State Sen. Frank LaRose, R-Akron, said he thinks Summit County — because of its collaborations with other government agencies — can be held up as a model of efficiency. He said he will look at the unfunded mandates Nelsen mentioned and would like to see a decrease on the burden to local governments in the state budget.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.