Taxing Matters

Amelia's Rock & Roll mayor fights to keep his village alive

Apr 22, 2009 at 2:06 pm

He’s a rock and roller by night. By day, he’s a mild-mannered mayor literally trying to save his village.

Leroy Ellington might be best known in the area for fronting his E Funk Band, for 15 years one of the area’s most popular party bands. For the last year his day job has been mayor of Amelia, the Clermont County village of 4,000 residents.

Amelia voters will decide in a May 5 special election whether to dissolve the village, first incorporated in 1900. If successful, it would be the first time in Ohio history a village has eliminated itself through a petition drive and citizens’ vote.

The dissolution movement was launched as a tax revolt when the village council and Ellington floated the idea last summer of an earnings tax to make up a projected budget shortfall by 2012. And therein lies a story of Ellington’s introduction to Politics 101, the visceral reaction of people to even the idea of a tax increase and, to some extent, fighting a stigma of being a Rock & Roll mayor.

Ellington, a Purcell High School grad who was raised in Oakley, has had a 30-year career in the local music scene, first as a sax player touring with noted Doo Wop group Richie and the Students, then with Stacy Mitchhart’s Blues U Can Use.

He founded Leroy Ellington and the E Funk Band in the early ’90s as a Funk/Blues outfit that would play originals and tour the region. He soon learned that there was money to be made in doing party band covers.

“People would say, ‘You guys are great. Do you play weddings? Do you know ‘Mustang Sally’?’ We’d say, ‘Sure,’ so that’s what we became almost by default,” Ellington says.

The group built a loyal following for its versatility. It delivers what’s wanted, whether Sinatra, cocktail Jazz, Classic Rock or down and dirty Funk. The diversity is reflected in the band’s makeup — for many years it was one of the few racially-mixed groups in the city.

Along the way, Ellington, who always considered himself a “city boy,” moved to the quiet village of Amelia.

“My wife and I sold our house in Hyde Park because we found out how much we could sell it for,” he says. “We moved out to Amelia and bought a lot more house.”

Ellington said he was excited that Amelia seemed a ’burb poised for growth, but nothing much was happening. He wondered why and began attending city council meetings.

“You start finding out things, like just to put up a traffic light can cost $80,000 and you have to do all these studies,” he says. “That can be hard for a small village.”

He was such a regular council attendee that the mayor suggested Ellington run for an upcoming vacancy. He did and was unopposed. In 2007, a new mayor was up for reelection with no opponent. Ellington decided to run against him.

“The mayor always seemed to run unopposed,” Ellington says. “I thought we should at least have choices. I swear I didn’t care if I won or not.”

Campaigning, he says he ran into people who raised an eyebrow about his Rock background.

“There is definitely a stigma,” he says. “I think some people thought, as a musician, I get up around noon, eat Fritos and smoke pot all day. At first, when I went around to events, I got a little bit of that. Usually after the first conversation they got the sense I had a brain in there somewhere.”

Ellington won the election by three votes after a recount in a record turnout.

He says, half seriously, perhaps his Rock background did help. After all, the name “Leroy Ellington” had been out there for years, if just promoting band appearances.

“I think I did have name recognition, even if people couldn’t place it,” he says with a laugh.

His campaign slogan was “Get Connected,” borrowing the hi-tech buzz word to describe old-style democracy.

“I wanted to reconnect the village government with the residents,” he says. “I felt there was a separation. In a small village I saw no reason for that.”

He began holding traditional town hall meetings focusing on village services, policing and green spaces. Ellington quickly learned about in-your-face democracy: “The first one turned into ‘beat up on the mayor.’ It was quite an introduction to the process.”

Then a budget crunch hit in 2008, with a shortfall projected in the coming years.

Following his “Get Connected” mantra, Ellington appointed a citizens advisory group charged with exploring creative ways to raise revenue. His good intentions sort of backfired, as the group came back with only ideas to cut services, not increase revenue.

“Their recommendations included turning off street lights and cutting the police department,” Ellington says. “I don’t want to turn off street lights to save $35,000 a year, and I want my kids safe. To me it didn’t represent the best interests of the citizens.”

The equitable solution seemed to be an earnings tax. Under Ohio law a village council has the power to impose up to a 1 percent tax without voter approval.

Amelia council members began considering an ordinance to pass a 1.01 percent earnings tax applying to both residents and those who work in the village. Ellington says the 1/100th of a percent was tacked on to ensure the issue ultimately would have to be voted on, as any earnings tax over 1 percent requires voter approval.

When the tax ordinance was brought up for its third and final reading in November, Ellington recommended the proposal be withdrawn in light of the economic meltdown. By that time the Amelia dissolution petition drive was well under way.

If voters approve, the southern part of Amelia will become part of Pierce Township while the northern half will be absorbed by Batavia Township.

It seems certain that lawsuits will ensue, since no one is quite sure who, or how, Amelia’s $3 million in debt and contractual obligations would be paid.

While Ellington thinks the elimination of the historic village is an extreme way to express a tax revolt, he does say he’s gotten the message.

“While I think an earnings tax is still the best way for the village to plan for future growth,” he says, “it’s apparent to me that there has been such a level of mistrust brewing here for so long that any idea like an earnings tax shouldn’t be floated in this community until the trust is restored.”

Despite that concession, tax opponents still think Amelia should drink the poison, fearing the tax idea will be revived.

Ellington is philosophical about the political lessons he’s learned from the contentious battle of the last year. He considers himself “pretty hard right” on most national issues, but some villagers seem to perceive him as a tax-and-spend liberal.

“Maybe when it comes to local politics I am more liberal,” he says. “In a sense, I look at things in their social context and a little more personally. Is that what liberals do? Really, on the local level, I’m not sure ideology works very well when it comes to just getting things done.”

Ellington is up for reelection in 2011, if the village exists. He says he has “absolutely no other political aspirations” — his top goal now is to record an album of his original Blues tunes in the coming months.