I am a business owner and a resident in Springfield Township. Back in September of 2013, I received a letter notifying me that the board of trustees were considering creating a Joint Economic Development Zone (JEDZ) earnings tax in Springfield Township. I was immediately outraged because we already pay the second highest property tax in Hamilton County behind Delhi Township, and a township is not allowed to levy an earnings tax under Ohio law. The JEDZ is legal, however it is meant for economic development purposes, where the businesses paying the tax get a new service or at least have the money spent in the areas in which it is collected. The township was proposing this new tax for funding day to day operations and the money collected would go into the general fund.
I immediately set out to campaign against this new tax. With the help of some other business owners and residents in the township, we created a political action committee (PAC) called “Stop The JEDZ.” We went around to all the business owners in the township, explained what was going on and solicited funds for our PAC so that we could campaign against this taxation without representation. We raised almost $15,000, purchased a billboard next to Brentwood Plaza, purchased 500 yard signs, distributed flyers door to door and sent out a mailer to residents. We also had many appearances in various forms of the news media including TV, radio and newspaper articles.
Before doing any fundraising or spending anything from the PAC, we fought the township in any way we could find with the legal system. Originally the township officials had planned to place the issue on a February special election ballot. This was perplexing because apparently the township was low on funds, yet was willing to spend upwards of $60,000 on holding a special election. We felt this was very wrong. Also, the township did not follow the proper procedure to put it on the ballot. The way the process works is they must put the documents (JEDZ contract, map of the JEDZ zone, economic development plan, etc) on display for 30 days available to the public to view prior to a public hearing. They take comments at the public hearing and then they are able to make changes to the contract and vote to put it on the ballot. They did all this, but one week prior to the public hearing, they changed the JEDZ contract from a 10 year term to a 40 year term with three 10 year renewals.
We called them out on this, filed a protest with the board of elections, paid an attorney $2600 and the board of elections determined that this did not fall under their jurisdiction since all the paperwork filed with them to put it on the ballot was correct. They said they could not determine whether the proper process was followed to get to that point. There were hearings in Columbus for HB 289, a bill that would eliminate this loophole in the Ohio Revised Code, and I went to Columbus to testify in favor of the bill. The same day I was there, Joe Honerlaw and Mike Hinnenkamp from the township were there as well. One of the arguments they made during the hearing was that even if they laid off all 8 people that work at the township administration building, they would only save $800,000 per year. I thought to myself, “Only?” The committee echoed my comments when I went up to testify.
We decided that the timing was going to be very close with the passage of HB 289, and the bill had changed several times to remove the teeth from the legislation, so we would have to fight this thing. We decided to file a motion in Hamilton County court to have the measure stripped from the ballot because they did not follow the proper procedure. We had gathered all of the evidence to show that this was the case. The township, knowing that we were likely to win the case, and since it would look bad in the court of public opinion if they were to lose, or if they were to spend $60,000 on a special election, held a special meeting the day we were set to file the motion in court, and rescinded the contract with Mount Healthy. They immediately scheduled another public hearing 30 days out so they could go through the entire process again and put it on the May primary ballot.
We campaigned very hard, had a lot of volunteers and really thought we had this thing beat. We had yard signs all over the township and were really building some momentum. About a month before the election, we caught wind of a pro-JEDZ PAC called “Citizens for the Future of Springfield Township.” They claim not to have spent or raised enough money to put them over the threshold required in order for them to have to file a pre-election campaign finance report, so we had no idea who was behind this PAC. After the primary election, we found out that major contributors to the PAC were none other than Gwen McFarlin (trustee), Joe Honerlaw (trustee), Mark Berning (trustee) and Dan Berning (fiscal officer). They also received a large contribution from PRUS Construction, which is the contractor that does most of the road repairs in the township. They started having meetings with the civic associations in the township, senior groups, etc and began raising money. They put out about the same number of signs as we did and it was on. Their signs were very misleading and claimed that the JEDZ “won’t increase your tax burden,” but this was untrue. The campaign ran down to the wire and we knew it would be close. We heard stories about the township intimidating employees of the service department, police and fire departments to get them to go along with it and to not speak out publicly against it. We ultimately lost by 290 votes out of more than 6,300 votes cast.
The township and the pro-JEDZ PAC, while claiming that we were spreading misinformation and half-truths, were actually doing that themselves. They claimed that if the JEDZ did not pass, they would have to cut police and fire, we pointed out that those departments are funded under their own levies and would not be affected and eventually they dropped that argument. They told the seniors that they would have to close the senior center and Grove Banquet Hall even though they admitted that both were self-sustaining and would probably even turn a profit in 2014. They said that roads wouldn’t get plowed, they would have to close parks, dissolve the arts and enrichment council (which shouldn’t be paid for with taxpayer money anyway) and it would cut down on the amount of road repairs they would be able to do even though they have a 1 mil road district levy already.
They convinced the Finneytown Civic Association and also claimed on both an official mailer from the township and a mailer from the PAC that the money from the JEDZ would be used for road repairs. The civic association bought into this and themselves began to promote passage of the JEDZ, putting out online postings, flyers and also yard signs that said “Fix our roads, Vote FOR JEDZ.” They also sold this thing by telling the public that they would rather pass a JEDZ than raise property tax. They claimed that if the JEDZ didn’t pass, raising property tax would be their only option, they were unwilling to make cuts to wasteful and unnecessary spending of taxpayer dollars. Only recently did these groups and the general public find out that they had been hoodwinked, even though this is what we had been telling people the whole time.
They made us out to be a bunch of crazy whack jobs that didn’t know what we were talking about, but finally, at a trustee work session meeting this week, the township officials admitted what we had been saying the whole time. The JEDZ money will not be used for repairing roads, and now they are going to propose a 4.5 mil tax levy for the road district, which would cost an average homeowner that owns a $100,000 home almost $500/year. On top of that, they said another option if a levy doesn’t pass, or if they decide to get the funds through alternative means, they would simply re-pave the roads anyway and assess the homeowners on those streets for the cost. So basically, if they can’t get the money from the taxpayers voluntarily, they will simply assess their property and take it by force.
Enough is enough. We are fed up, and we aren’t going to take it anymore. Gwen McFarlin (trustee) and Dan Berning (fiscal officer) are up for re-election in 2015. Gwen already has a liberty-minded, fiscally responsible candidate running against her, and there are a few folks that might be interested in running against Dan. Joe Honerlaw and Mark Berning (the other two trustees) are up for re-election in 2017 and we are working on getting someone to run against them as well. We need to replace all of our elected officials, because in order to change the policy, you have to change the people.