Should Portage County officials use revenue from the sales and use tax to fund drug-prevention education programs or further law enforcement options?

That was one question on the mind of members of the subcommittee in charge of distributing the more than $4 million generated by the 0.25 percent sales and use tax imposed on county residents a year ago. Revenue was to be used to combat the substance abuse epidemic in the county.

Last week, the panel discussed current projects already being funded as well as the procedure for evaluating future proposals for funding presented to the group. The panel has already dedicated more than $1 million of the funds for renovating the Portage County Jail on Infirmary Road in Shalersville.

A total of $4.2 million has been collected under the tax so far. Only $813,000 has been spent. More than $400,000 went toward increased road patrols at the sheriff's office; $250,000 went toward upgrades at the jail, corrections and probation officers, and $8,000 went toward training for the adult probation department.

One option was to fund staffing for the newly formed drug court, part of Portage County Common Pleas Judge Becky Doherty's campaign promises. Commissioner Maureen Frederick said she would prefer the money not go to projects that bridge gaps in personnel or staffing, though admits that some of the current projects do.

"I don't want to get (sales and use tax) money intertwined with trying to meet the needs of other entities (like the courts.) I just want (the committee) to be transparent in anything that we are using sales and use tax for," Frederick said. "I don't want that money going everywhere to bridge gaps in necessary services in different departments."

The county's general fund cannot handle the cost of sustaining a drug court, which is in its infancy, for preventative measures, Frederick said. Other proposals for longterm funding of projects should also be thrown out if they aren't sustainable, she said.

"I have to make the distinction between the downstream effects of drug use here in this county as opposed to the upstream attempts we're trying to make," said Dr. Dean DePerro, the county coroner and a member of the panel.

"We've already poured millions into the downstream effect, putting money towards a bigger jail in order to accommodate what happens in the court system. My take on this is that the rest of the money should be spent on prevention."

DePerro noted that during community meetings before the tax was imposed, citizens voiced support for preventative education in schools and not necessarily the new drug court system. However, he did say that the panel could consider an option for funding the court since no state funding is available to make it work.

"The agencies I work with -- Townhall II in particular -- they're out in the schools and the district and the schools are saying 'We can't do these things ourselves, we need you,' said Joel Mowrey, executive director of the Portage County Mental Health and Recovery Board, who serves in an advisory role on the board and does not vote.

"So they're not going to be the ones submitting the proposals because they don't have the resources, or the time."

Todd Bragg, director of budget and finance for the county, said the panel has to consider the needs of multiple populations in the county, from those not on drugs, those who are on drugs who need treatment, first time criminal users and criminals addicted to drugs. It's important to not lose track of either end of the spectrum in order to help the entire community, he added.

Email: mmerchant@recofdpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4156