Government Lawyer Looks to Remove Westerville Tax Referendum From Ballot
Westerville taxpayers working to repeal a recent tax levy may not legally do so, according to a complaint filed by a Westerville lawyer who specializes in local government. Gene Hollins, who provides legal services to several central Ohio towns, filed an electoral complaint on August 22 arguing that Westerville Issue 52 cannot be included on the November ballot.
On August 7, Westerville citizens’ group Taxpayers for Westerville Schools (TFWS) announced they had collected enough signatures to place a levy referendum on the general election ballot. The Franklin County Board of Elections certified the issue’s placement on the ballot on August 20.
TFWS seeks to counter a property tax increase narrowly approved in March after two consequentive failed levy campaigns by the school district, and crafted a ballot measure to do so with help from Maurice Thompson at The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law.
Hollins claimed the ballot initiative lacks legal standing, and said TFWS “received some bad advice from an outside advocacy group with an agenda.” Westerville is a suburb of Columbus, where Thompson’s 1851 Center is headquartered.
Thompson described Hollins’s complaint as “a completely frivolous backdoor attempt to prevent the voters of Westerville from having a say in their tax rate.”
If the referendum is approved, Westerville’s school tax burden would be reduced to 2009 levels, breaking a seven-year trend that has resulted in property taxes increasing 63 percent since 2005. According to the Ohio Department of Education, taxpayers in the Westerville City School District currently pay an average of $2,770.31 in property taxes – more than any other district in the region.
Despite voters’ narrow March approval of the property tax hike, this summer the Westerville Education Association (WEA) instructed teachers not to prep classrooms for the the school year as part of union agitation for a narrowly-averted strike. According to emails obtained by the Columbus Dispatch, WEA has cited attempts by TFWS to reduce the local tax burden as part of a larger effort to “bust unions.”
Hollins, whose company website touts his experience in negotiating government tax structures to maximize government revenues, claims the laws on which Thompson and TFWS based their referendum - Ohio Revised Code Chapters 5705 and 5748 - do not apply to replacement levies like the one Westerville residents will vote to roll back this fall.
Like WEA parent union the Ohio Education Association, Hollins would appear to have an interest in preventing citizens from fighting tax hikes. Thompson has made it clear the referendum in Westerville could be replicated in highly taxed school districts across Ohio.
In addition to representing Columbus suburbs in numerous tax revenue negotiations with various companies, Hollins has also been directly involved in several different government disputes over the allocation of property tax revenue for the Westerville City School District.
Hollins was contacted by Media Trackers for comment on his election challenge, but did not respond in time for publication.
The Franklin County Board of Elections has scheduled a September 4 hearing to rule on Hollins’s complaint.