Judge: ‘Moot’ lawsuit on forgiveness tax

NEWTON FALLS – A common pleas judge ruled in favor of the village and threw out a resident lawsuit revolving around the halt put to a 2012 referendum concerning the village’s forgiveness tax, which if passed would have kept taxes at a lower rate for many residents.

Village resident Werner Lange filed the lawsuit in late February to shed light on the tax increase when the forgiveness tax was repealed and on council’s refusal to place on the ballot a referendum that would have allowed residents to vote on the increase. Lange argued that the action was a legislative function garnering a vote of the people, not an administrative action as determined by the village. Judge Peter Kontos however, found the case moot.

“Because the 2012 election has come and gone, and no one filed an action to compel the Newton Falls Clerk to return the referendum petitions to the Trumbull County Board of Elections, the issue is currently moot … But following the passage of the 2012 general election, the matter became moot, and this Court cannot presume, as Mr. Lange has, that the referendum would have succeeded on the ballot,” the judgment entry reads.

Lange said he spent more than $1,000 on the lawsuit and was disappointed in the outcome, particularly since he changed his request from a return of the taxes paid to a simple apology from the village.

“I challenged no election results, I’m challenging the unlawful repression of a referendum,” he said. “It’s a sad day for democracy.”

After the forgiveness tax was removed through a vote of council in February 2012, 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.

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.