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Health and Human Services Levy Taxing on Voters

Thursday, April 17, 2003 at 3:34 PM

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When Cuyahoga County voters head to the polls this May, they won't be picking their favorite candidates. Aside from a few charter amendments in some localities, taxes will be the prevailing question. Only one tax issue will be on the ballot county-wide; the county health and human services levy, which expires at the end of 2003. The HHS levy has enjoyed broad support from voters in the past. But today's tough economy makes this a precarious time to ask residents to vote themselves a tax increase. ideastream's Bill Rice reports.

A yes vote on Issue 15, as it will appear on the ballot, would tax property owners about $150 per $100,000 in assessed property value - up from the roughly $85 home owners are now paying. But county officials say $150 isn’t that painful - especially when you consider the amenities it will pay for. Commissioner Jimmy Dimora ticked just some of them off back in early April, when the campaign for Issue 15 officially got underway.

Jimmy Dimora: Programs supporting the health of infants and early education for our children, services to our seniors so they can live independently at home, and be protected from abuse and neglect, mental health counseling, emergency shelters for the homeless, drug abuse prevention and treatment, and many, many others.

The tax also contributes to Metrohealth’s burn care center, and its Level One trauma center.

Levy supporters say the Greater Cleveland area has a long history - at least 50 years - of providing essential services to those less fortunate - in large part paid for through some kind of social service tax. Such levies have had an extraordinary record of voter approval, says Commissioner Tim McCormack. But these are extraordinarily tough times, he says, and puts Issue 15’s chances of passing at 50-50.

Tim McCormack: There is a very hostile anti-public expenditure atmosphere out there. This is a tax - there’s no other way to describe it. It will read as a tax, and many people will initially be inclined not to vote for it. That’s the biggest challenge.

That, McCormack says, and low voter turnout as well - as low as 15% by some estimates.

Right now there isn’t a great deal of organized opposition to Issue 15. But campaign officials are concerned about a lack of support from labor. John Ryan, who heads the local AFL-CIO chapter, is known for offering union support and rallying workers behind various social causes. But he’s tepid at best on issue 15, saying the union is neutral - neither for nor against. He wouldn’t elaborate. But another local union chapter has stepped out against the levy. Service Employees International Union represents, among others, workers in health care and mental health services. Dale Butland is spokesperson for SEIU local 1199. He says non-profit service providers that receive tax dollars don’t always it wisely.

Dale Butland: We can’t in good conscience ask the taxpayers of CC to dip into their pockets for what amounts to a 60% tax increase that will have no accountability with it. Because there is already too much waste, and we don’t want to see more waste.

Asked what kind of waste, Butland cites numerous examples: exorbitant salaries, fancy artwork, extravagant restaurants, banquets and hotel rooms.

Dale Butland: And in the case of our union members we find that there are lots of agency activities designed to interfere with workers’ ability to decide whether or not they want to join a union.

In other words, union busting. And it’s that example that’s most at issue with SEIU.

Dale Butland: People say they are frequently pulled away from their patients to attend what are called one on one meetings with their supervisors, who then tell them that it would not be in their interest to join a union. That’s not an acceptable use of HC dollars in our opinion.

Butland names only one organization he says does this: Metrohealth Medical Center, which, when contacted, declined to comment. Butland says if the union could secure signed agreements from agencies saying they wouldn’t discourage union organizing, then they would support the levy. So far none have stepped forward.

Against these challenges, levy supporters say they’re banking most on the good will of citizens. County Commissioner Tim McCormack.

Tim McCormack: We have to ask ourselves as a people: Do we have any responsibility to those who clearly cannot fend for themselves? The only safety net you’ve got to respond to these situations is the county safety net. There is no other place to go. So if this is not supported, then we’re drawing back from decency that we have developed over many decades.

Put another way, McCormack says, passage of the levy is home looking after home. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3.

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