A Stark County judge voided a successful Lake Township police levy Wednesday, saying a substantial error on the ballot language last fall misled voters and might have affected the outcome.
Common Pleas Judge John G. Haas admitted in his six-page ruling he was conflicted about tossing out the election result because citizens must be confident their votes won’t be disturbed.
“However, for the electorate to be confident in their government they must be able to trust the integrity of the election process,” he wrote.
Late in the day, though, Common Pleas Judge Frank Forchione, on behalf of Haas, issued a stay of the ruling pending an appeal.
The incorrect language appeared in legal notices in the Hartville News and on the ballot voters read. It indicated the 4.5-mill police levy would cost 45 cents in property tax for every $1,000 of taxable home value. In reality, it would cost taxpayers $4.50 per $1,000.
The controversial levy, designed to raise $2.59 million a year, passed by 490 votes out of more than 10,000 cast.
It allowed the Uniontown Police Department to expand Jan. 1 to serve all areas of Lake Township except Hartville. Before that, the Stark County Sheriff’s Office responded to calls in areas of the township that Uniontown and Hartville police did not cover.
After the election, a group of residents sued to void the result. They argued that voters relied on the incorrect ballot language to make up their minds and are now getting billed on their property taxes 10 times more than expected for police protection.
“Obviously, we’re happy that the judge ruled in our favor,” said attorney Eric Stecz, who represented the unhappy residents. “It was the ruling we thought was appropriate, and we’re disappointed it took going through the lawsuit to get there.”
Lake Township Police Chief Harold Britt said the township will appeal the ruling.
He said police have no immediate plans to stop patrolling the new areas because the judge’s decision didn’t address that issue.
“If residents need us, we are still Lake Township police,” he said. “We will respond as needed to the residents of the township.”
Township Trustee John Arnold declined to comment.
Haas’ ruling also creates a sticky situation for the county, which has started collecting property taxes based on the levy approval.
Knowing property owners would be confused, county Auditor Alan Harold and Treasurer Alexander Zumbar issued a joint statement urging people to pay their taxes.
“We are in receipt of Judge Haas’ ruling to set aside the election results of Issue 6 and we respect that ruling,” the statement said. “As a result of the subsequent stay signed by Judge Forchione, we advise all taxpayers within Lake Township to pay their respective bill as presented by the due date of Feb. 15, 2012.
“Any increase or decrease to one’s taxes will be adjusted with the second half bill, pending the final outcome of this case.”
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org.