Backers of sales tax face tough sell

AKRON, Ohio (AP) - Backers of a sales tax that would raise an estimated $30 million a year for school construction in Summit County will spend $500,000 in their uphill campaign to pass the tax.

Supporters of the tax hike have launched an information blitz, attempting to win support for the first sales tax increase in Ohio that would be used to build and repair school buildings.

Early polls showed the issue being soundly defeated, but supporters of the sales tax hope the glitzy, intense campaign planned between now and Nov. 5 will change that sentiment.

"Our message, which we hope to send all over the county, to all of the different corners, will resonate with people," said Joel Bailey, who is chairing the Citizens to Improve Summit Schools campaign.

The campaign will include three or four mailings to targeted voters, 25 billboards around the county, 75,000 to 125,000 phone calls and 10,000 yard signs.

Three television commercials will air on Cleveland and cable stations. Closer to the election, radio spots and newspaper ads will run.

The issue would increase Summit County's sales tax from 5.75 percent to 6.25 percent for 30 years.

Money from the increase would be divided, based on student population, among the county's 17 school districts. As the largest district, Akron would get the biggest share of the proceeds.

"It's unique because it doesn't just affect Summit County property owners," said Donna Loomis, Akron Public Schools deputy superintendent. "This is the first time all 17 school districts have worked together for one issue for all of their students."

The issue is particularly urgent for Akron Public Schools, which wants to begin a $774 million school construction project. The district first must secure $284 million in local money to get the remaining money from the state.

Akron is counting on the sales tax approval to get the construction plan under way and to avoid relying on property taxes for the local matching money.

"If this loses, we lose out on the sales tax money, but we also lose out on the matching money for the state funds as well," Loomis said.

The only organized opposition to the sales tax hike doesn't have nearly as much money to spend as the pro-tax group.

Committee Against Sales Tax has raised about $3,000. That won't pay for any television ads or billboards, though the tax opponents do hope to send out some mailers.

"It's David against Goliath," said Terry Penrod, a Summit County Council candidate who is heading the anti-tax effort. "I can't compete against $500,000."

Penrod argues there is no guarantee that the sales tax revenue will actually go to schools and the intent of the tax could get lost to political maneuvering during its 30-year duration.

He also claims the tax hike is badly timed because of the poor economy and the fact that so many districts have levies on the ballot.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)