Findlay, Ohio Mayor Lydia Mihalik spoke to the Findlay Rotary Club this week. It was basically a state-of-the-city speech telling the business community how well we are doing economically. What caught my attention came at the end of the speech concerning a secret business tax deferment scheme causing some drama at city hall. The Mayor basically said there was nothing to see here and to move along. Why should we take her word for it?
To understand how this is worrisome, you need a short review on the secret scheme. Here is a news article from May:
Findlay officials Thursday declined to identify which businesses are deferring city tax payments, or the amount they owe, claiming the information is confidential under state law.
The Courier on Thursday directly asked for the names of the businesses and the amounts owed. But city Tax Administrator Andrew Thomas cited Ohio Revised Code Chapter 718, which has to do with municipal taxes, for the secrecy.
Thomas is the sole decider on which businesses get deferrals.
He said the city records which 20-40 businesses are having their taxes deferred because it makes a computer notation when it sends letters informing businesses they may withhold payment until as late as Oct. 15.
City Council approved the practice in 2009. The goal is to try to decrease the amount that has to be refunded or transferred to next year’s tax payments, while also trying to work with local businesses, Thomas said.
The city administration wants to keep the system, said Mayor Lydia Mihalik.
Mihalik said she is confident in Thomas’ ability to decide what businesses are good candidates to have payments deferred.
“It’s like me telling my fire chief how to fight fires,” Mihalik said. “It’s an irresponsible position to take.”
I get the secrecy on the names. Tax returns should be private information (unless there is a court order of course) but the secrecy about the whole scheme is troubling. The administration was asked several times in the past six months for details about the deferral program and city hall has refused to give any information. In fact they claim it isn’t a program. It seems that it’s all in Tax Administrator Andrew Thomas’ head.
Because they have nothing formal in writing there are no public records. That is scary because the public has no way of knowing that the deferment scheme isn’t being used for political favors.
That’s why the Mayor’s comments about the “program” this week doesn’t fill me with comfort.
Mihalik also defended the city’s practice of deferring some estimated business tax payments.
The practice has allowed the administration to avoid substantial overpayments and refunds, Mihalik said.
“It’s not political favors,” Mihalik said.
How do we know the deferring is NOT political favors if the whole process including the participants is kept locked behind the Mayor’s office door?
An elected official who refuses to give the public information about their work and says “trust me” is someone to be worried about.