GENEVA — Office-seekers gathered at the Geneva Community Center Wednesday night to make their case just weeks away from Election Day.
The annual meet the candidates night, sponsored by the Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce, drew candidates from a variety of area races. But much of the evening focused on contentious arguments over two proposed income tax levies and the financial future of the Geneva school district.
Income tax levies
Geneva Area City Schools Superintendent Eric Kujala made a plea for voters to pass a 1 percent school district income tax levy.
Kujala said the failure to pass school property tax levies, along with dramatic cuts from the state, left the district with far less operating funds.
He said the district has received $5.2 million less in funding over the last six years and the levy was necessary. In fact, the district has not received new operating funds since 1994, forcing it to cut 32 staff positions and make wage freezes.
“We are the 25th lowest out of 608 Ohio school districts in funding per pupil,” he said. “The Ohio Department of Education may place us in a state of ‘fiscal caution’ due to the deficit in our five-year forecast. We need to pass this levy to maintain our quality of education and keep pride alive.”
He said the proposed income tax is “a fair tax, based on ability to pay." Its taxable income base is the same as the state's income tax, according to the district — which can be found on line 5 of a 1040 income tax return form.
The school district's income tax would not apply to Social Security benefits; disability and survivors' benefits; railroad retirement benefits; welfare benefits; child support; property received as a gift; bequest or inheritance; and workers' compensation benefits, according to district Treasurer Kevin Lillie.
Farmers would be taxed only on farm income, rather than their farms' assessed property values under the state's Current Agricultural Use Value formula.
"The (school district's income tax) would generally benefit farmers who bear a large share of the property tax burden in many rural school districts," Lillie told the Star Beacon Friday. "Unlike a property tax, a tax on income is reduced when farm profits fall."
Geneva City Manager Doug Starkey then made his case for the city separate proposed income tax levy increase from 1.5 mills to 2.2 mills.
He said the city had fallen behind in its ability to pay for providing services and improvements thanks to a lack of state and federal funding.
“Our five-year capital plan for street repairs has been affected, our trucks and equipment are old and it makes maintenance difficult,” he said. “We have a 1968 model leaf (collection) machine and much of our other equipment is old. Even our police department’s guns are old.”
He said more than 30 percent of the funds used to make repairs and improvements in the city, like the upcoming paving of Cedar Street, came from state or federal grants and passing the levy was necessary.
Geneva School Board
The four candidates for three seats on the Geneva Area City Schools board were in attendance — and at times at odds over the proposed income tax.
Richard Arndt, a two-year school board incumbent, said he was raised in Geneva and was a veteran of the Marine Corps, where he learned “service above self.” He said he learned to “teach others who want to learn.”
“I have huge respect for teachers and kids who graduate (from high school),” he said. “The community molds the future of our youth. Public education is probably the most important thing there is today.”
Richard Dana, who has been on the board four years, said he was a product of high-quality public education, which “made him what he is today.”
Dana said he supported the school’s income tax levy.
“We’re facing a public education crisis. We need to spend more on our students. We need all hands on deck to save our schools,” he said.
Jamie Ortiz said she attended Geneva schools and went on to get a Master’s degree in accounting from Notre Dame University.
She said education was important to her family and she had kids attending Geneva schools.
She also supported the school district income tax and said people should “not lose sight of what is most important. Our children are our greatest asset. We need to develop and nurture our children.”
David PerDue, who has been a Geneva city council member for the last four years, said he was against both the school board’s levy and the city’s levy.
“I’m against any new taxes,” he said. “I know we need to support our schools but we don’t need to give Spire (Institute) a tax break. Why should we have this levy now? Citizens won’t support it.”
PerDue said he would like to see a drug education program and a police “resource officer” in the school district.
Dana agreed that might be a good idea, but wondered how the district would pay for it.
PerDue said throwing money at the under-funding problem won’t make it go away.
“We have to make some tough choices,” Dana said. “But kids will get the usage of Spire and Clutter will have to pay some of what he owes.”
Arndt said, “We need the levy. I’m concerned about taxes too, but our most important concern is good public schools.”
Dana said, “It all comes down to the dollars. We need to adequately fund our schools.”
Per Due angrily replied, about the millions Spire owes. He said Drug Education is a must and he would find volunteers to deal with it and get the city to provide a resource officer.
Ortiz said, “If we can find grant money we can do it. Even if the levy passes, we may have to.”