County rescinds sales tax increase to avoid legal challenge, referendum

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - In a sudden about-face, Hamilton County commissioners unanimously rescinded a 0.2 percent sales tax increase Wednesday.

It became clear by mid-morning a petition drive was successful in forcing the issue to a public vote, and a legal challenge was imminent.

Commissioners Todd Portune and Denise Driehaus just approved the tax increase from 7 percent to 7.2 percent in late June. They said they needed it to generate $28 million to fill a $30 million hole in the county budget next year.

A law firm, Katz Teller, recently notified the county the way the sales tax was approved violated state law. It was passed in a measure they contend required a unanimous vote.

The county approved it in a 2-1 vote when Republican Commissioner Chris Monzel dissented.

"While I am somewhat concerned about winning this legal battle, I am more concerned about the time it will take to fight this challenge, and the possibility that the county will not be able to collect the tax while the issue is tied up in court proceedings," Driehaus said in a prepared statement.

"Therefore, I agree that we should rescind our previous vote to avoid the legal battle."

Then, on Wednesday morning, County Republicans and the anti-tax group Coalition Opposed to Additional Taxes and Spending (COAST) declared victory in their referendum effort.

The local elections board told FOX19 NOW it appeared the groups had gathered enough valid signatures of registered voters out of the more than 38,000 they quickly amassed over the past few weeks to force a public vote on the tax increase this fall.

"Victory! You did it!" Hamilton County GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou congratulated petition drive organizers and voters in an email Wednesday morning.

He also wrote: "There will be enough signatures to get the Democrats' sales tax on the fall ballot and give YOU a chance to HAVE A SAY IN WHAT YOU PAY!"

Had the tax issue appeared on the fall ballot, that would have prompted conservatives to turn out in droves to vote it down.

And, while they were casting ballots, they also likely would vote to return U.S. Congressman Steve Chabot to office.

The Westwood Republican is facing a challenge from Democrat Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval in one of the nation's most closely watched races.

Katz Teller is a major donor to Pureval's campaign, according to our news partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer, and his campaign treasurer, Evan Nolan, is a Katz Teller attorney.

Now, it's not clear how the county will fill the hole in their upcoming budget.

"Unfortunately, this will mean difficult cuts to county services next year, because it is too late to correct this issue in time for the November election," Driehaus said in her statement.

"We must continue the conversation about raising the resources necessary to keep our community safe and healthy."

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