NORTON: A ballot issue that city officials say will cripple Norton if successful drew some high-powered attention Friday.
Andrew Douglas, a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court for 18 years until his retirement in 2002, drove up from Columbus to encourage residents to vote down Issue 1.
Joining him was Tom Austin, executive secretary of the Ohio Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (OPBA), which presented Norton Mayor Mike Zita with a $500 check toward that end.
“When I came into town, I saw a sign that said, ‘Norton, A Growing Community,’ ” Douglas said. “One of the best ways to get a sign like that taken down is for this issue to pass, because this community will not continue to grow without its heart — and that’s a water and sewer system and its police force.”
Issue 1 is a charter amendment on the Aug. 6 special election ballot that would end property tax assessments for water and sewer lines, end tap-in fees and cap water and sewer bills for residents at $35 a month, with a maximum increase of 2 percent a year.
The legislation would also mandate that Norton pay off about $3.3 million in interest and principal for bonds now funded through individual property-owner assessments. All future projects would be funded solely by the city’s general fund.
While that might sound like a boon to property owners, the consequences could “destroy the city,” Zita said. Officials have said the issue would cost Norton more than half of its $6 million operating budget.
That would trigger significant cuts in services and result in heavy citywide layoffs of government workers, including police and firefighters.
Issue 1 was brought about by residents in the Nash Heights neighborhood, where aging septic systems from about 255 homes are discharging waste into local streams.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency ordered a fix, and the city responded with an $8 million sewer project. Residents are upset that they would be assessed for one-third of that cost.
Attorney Steven Fannan, one of the co-founders of Citizens 4 Norton and a candidate for the City Council, said assessments are often a heavy financial burden for residents, some of whom are billed $10,000 or more for their share of water and sewer construction.
City officials counter that if they are forced to pay for all water and sewer projects, something else will have to give.
“As early as Sept. 9 of this year, there could very well be nine policemen laid off if this issue is successful,” Douglas told media at City Hall.
Austin said he guessed that was something the citizens of Norton didn’t really want.
He reminded residents that in 2007, voters turned down a plan to abolish the police department and contract with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. The move would have saved Norton about $1 million a year.
Representatives from the police department were at the media event Friday, and Douglas spoke to them directly.
“I can’t stress to you all enough that not only are your jobs on the line, that’s not the most important thing. ... This community cannot risk a 45-minute delay to have a response to an armed robbery or something that the sheriff would have to come in and cover. ... So I ask you to be actively involved in this campaign,” Douglas said.
Douglas serves as counsel to the board of the OPBA.
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.