Falls sued over tax dispute

NEWTON FALLS – A lawsuit has been filed against members of village council over their decision to remove a forgiveness tax that would have kept taxes at a lower rate for many residents this year.

Village resident Werner Lange said he filed the lawsuit Monday in common pleas court to shed light on the tax increase and on council’s refusal to place on the ballot a referendum that would have allowed residents to vote on the increase last November.

“That’s the stuff dictators do,” Lange said.

The forgiveness tax gave village residents credit for their income tax in Newton Falls if they were paying income tax in a separate municipality where they work.

Lange’s lawsuit cites the three members of council – Richard Zamecnik, Nancy Hoffman and Philip Beer – who voted to repeal the credit during its three readings between January and February of last year. The final motion was passed on Feb. 21, 2012, by a 3-2 vote with Mayor Lyle Wadell breaking a tie vote because Hoffman was absent.

“I wasn’t going to vote for anything,” Councilwoman Mary Ann Johnson said Monday night. “The people are taxed enough.”

Councilman Richard Monteville said he had similar reasons for voting against the repeal, adding that he requested that council investigate more ways to cut spending before increasing taxes.

After the forgiveness tax was removed, residents petitioned for a referendum to be added to the ballot that would allow them to vote on the tax. The referendum was approved by the Trumbull County Board of Elections and then returned to the council to approve its placement on the ballot.

On the advice of Law Director Joseph Fritz, however, the council denied the referendum. Fritz explained in an inter-office memorandum that the decision to withdraw the forgiveness tax was an administrative act rather than a legislative act and as such could not be voted on by residents.

“It’s not an easy answer. What is a referendum? That is what the court’s going to have to rule on,” Monteville said.

Lange, who said he plans to represent himself, said he decided to file the lawsuit after learning recently why the referendum didn’t make the ballot after he used a public records request to gain a copy of Fritz’s memo.

The forgiveness tax was reinstated for the 2013 tax year by council. Fritz said he was not aware of the lawsuit Monday evening and opted not to comment on the matter.

The case has been assigned to Common Pleas Judge Peter Kontos; no date has been set.