Stark Parks levy passes despite farm bureau concerns

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The voters of Stark County have spoken, and 61% of them want to keep funding Stark Parks.

“We’re grateful to have passed the levy,” said Bob Fonte, director of Stark Parks. “We’re thrilled and relieved.”

The official election results, released May 18, showed 38,605 voted in favor of the 1-mill replacement tax levy to find the parks and 24,276 voted against it.

The fate of the park district was on the line after voters shot down a replacement levy and a 0.2-mill increase in park funding in November, with 60% voting against it.

The Stark County Farm Bureau opposed the levy and asked members to vote against it. A grassroots movement of farmers and landowners also campaigned against the levy, voicing concerns about private property rights.

“We will continue to work with Stark Parks to ensure that they are working with landowners and not trying to use eminent domain as a tactic to coerce landowners or use it as a tool for taking prime farmland,” said Nick Kennedy, organization director for Stark County Farm Bureau, in a statement.

“We hope that through this process they understand that they cannot put together a plan that will not include landowner input. They answer to the taxpayers of the county and should always listen to their wants and needs for the county.”

Past issues

Kennedy said in a March interview with Farm and Dairy that the park district put out a map several years ago showing future proposed trail systems, some of which were drawn through members’ farmland. Kennedy said the park board was not receptive to the county farm bureau’s concerns about the proposed trails.

“If they’re not willing to listen to us, we need to go after their purse strings,” he said, at the time.

The park district removed the ask for an increase and asked instead for a straight renewal to continue funding the parks to the tune of $7 million a year.

If voters again said no to the levy, there would have been one more shot in November to get it passed, but the repercussions of the no vote would have been felt immediately, Fonte said. The park’s existing 1-mill levy, voted on in 2012, was set to expire at the end of 2020.

Fonte told the Farm and Dairy in March that the park district would have to begin closing buildings and laying off employees immediately if the levy didn’t pass, because they needed to have enough money to pay bills by the end of the year.

The cliffhanger issue was dragged out even further after the Ohio primary election, set for March 17, was called off at the last minute due to COVID-19 concerns. Limited in-person voting and absentee ballot voting was allowed through April 28.

During that time, although many of the park’s amenities were closed because of the pandemic, park usage increased, Fonte said. They did not hire seasonal workers this year and are using year round staff to do what needs to be done to keep the parks open.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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