Cincinnati City Parks Levy Stirs Passion For And Against

Oct 8, 2015

The most contentious issue on the ballot this November in Cincinnati centers around something almost everyone agrees on – that the city of Cincinnati has a very good park system.

But the proponents of Issue 22 – a charter amendment that would place a permanent one mill tax in the city charter for park improvements – believe they could be even better.

Opponents of the ballot issue, on the other hand, argue that the charter amendment would place too much power in the hands of the mayor – in this case, John Cranley, who is leading the effort to pass the issue – and could result in the commercialization of some of the city’s finest green space.

The ballot issue came about because Cranley and his supporters mounted a petition initiative campaign where they gathered the signatures of about 21,000 Cincinnati voters  - about three times what they needed.

The battle over Issue 22 has been raging on ever since it qualified for the November ballot. Earlier this week, the pro-Issue 22 campaign, Citizens for Cincinnati Parks, began airing a TV ad that featured Cranley prominently, throwing a football, catching a basketball, umpiring a ball game, along with plenty of shots of kids playing sports in the parks.

Save Our Parks, the anti-Issue 22   campaign committee, is likely to be outspent by proponents. Their fundraising has just begun.

First, though, an explanation of what it is Cincinnatians will be voting on.

The issue:

It would implement a permanent one mill tax levy for the park system, placed in the city charter. The levy would generate about $5.5 million a year; and cost about $35 on every $100,000 of property value.

The charter amendment says a quarter of the revenue generated would pay for park maintenance. The remaining money would be used as seed money to buy bonds that would finance about $80 million in projects – projects that the mayor has already laid out but would have to be approved by the city park board.

It would also require city council to appropriate at least $2.3 million a year to the city parks department.

The tax levy would be written into the charter; and the only way it could be removed is if there was an issue placed on some future ballot to remove it.

What are some of the projects being proposed?

According to Cranley, the projects would include:

-         A public-private partnership with Western-Southern to develop park space in Lytle Park.

-         The Wasson Way Trail, a bikeway that would connect Avondale and Xavier University out to Newtown via Rookwood, Oakley and Hyde Park.

-         Working with the University of Cincinnati and Clifton Town Meeting to develop plans for improvements at Burnet Woods. An early design included a restaurant in those plans. But Jared Kamrass, a spokesman for the pro-Issue 22 campaign, said that "after listening to the concerns of residents and owners of businesses along Ludlow, the mayor agrees with the community sentiment that Burnet Woods does not need a restaurant and will not support the building of one. "

-         Finishing the marina at Smale Riverfront Park.

-         Create a Mill Creek Valley Bike Trail that would run parallel to Interstate 75 through Spring Grove Village and Northside.

-         Creation of an off-road bike and multi-purpose marathon-length trail through Mt. Airy Forest, along with the possible private development of a beer garden within the park.

-         Building of Oasis River Trail,  which would connect Smale Riverfront Park along the Ohio River through the East End and Columbia-Tusculum to Lunken Airport and Armleder Park.

-         A new pocket community park in the heart of College Hill’s neighborhood business district.

-         Renovation of Westwood’s community and green space at Westwood Township and Epworth to enable more outdoor neighborhood events.

-         Create an “urban campsite” in Roselawn, with tennis courts, basketball courts, and baseball fields.

-         Preserve King Records site in Evanston and create a small café and museum

The debate over Issue 22 has created much controversy and raised many questions. The following are some of them:

Is the levy necessary?

Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and an Issue 22 supporter, said that, “over the years, over the past few decades, funding for the parks has gone down tremendously. (Parks Director) Willie Carden is doing a great job, but there is a lot of deferred maintenance in our parks. We need to catch up. This will create an assured stream of revenue for the parks.”

Donald Mooney, a Democrat and a lawyer who is one of the leaders of Save Our Parks, the anti-Issue 22 committee, said there is no reason for a permanent tax levy where the spending will be under the control of the mayor.

“If you had a levy for park maintenance and let park board make the decisions about how the money is spent, then I wouldn’t be carrying the flag against this,’’ Mooney said.

Does the charter amendment language lay out which projects will be done and when?

None of the 16 projects Cranley has designated so far are listed in the ballot language. Nor does it estimate when the projects might be begun or completed.  That means the mayor and the park board could add or subtract projects if the levy passes, but the mayor has said he doesn’t plan to do that.

Should a permanent tax levy be written into the city charter?

Burke argues that this is nothing unusual – the city charter has a number of permanent taxes written into it.

“The city earnings tax, the tax for SORTA, the tax for infrastructure – they are all written into the charter,’’ Burke said.

It is, he said, a way of guaranteeing a revenue stream for the parks – which are often one of the first things cut when it comes time to start slashing the city budget.

Any of them could be repealed by a vote.

Opponents say that this levy has no built-in review of spending. And, unlike some of the other taxes written into the charter, like the one for infrastructure and SORTA, there is no trigger to do away with them. The infrastructure tax would end if council didn’t spend the money. The SORTA tax would end if a sales tax is imposed to support Metro.

The only way to get rid of the park levy is by putting an issue on the ballot.

What about the argument by opponents that this is just a slush fund for Cranley to dole out money in advance of a 2017 re-election campaign? And what about the argument that it cuts the park board and city council out of the decision making and leaves it in the hands of the mayor?

Cranley has forcefully denied that, saying that it will be absolutely necessary for him to have neighborhood support for any plan he puts forward. 

“This nonsense that the mayor is the only one who is going to determine what is done with this money is simply not true,’’ Burke said. “Even John Cranley is not going to push around this park board. He is going to have to convince them. These are very gutsy people.”

The mayor appoints members of the park board, but with the approval of council. And, under this plan, council must approve the issuance of bonds to pay for capital improvement projects in the parks.

Mooney said it places far too much power in the hands of the mayor.

“This is a bad idea, giving one politician $80 million to play with in the run-up to his re-election campaign,’’ Mooney said.

The Lytle Park plan, Mooney said, is a good example of the mayor giving preferential treatment to a powerful corporation.

“This Lytle Park work makes a nice front yard for Western-Southern,’’ Mooney said. “I don’t think that it is a coincidence.”

Will the possibility of commercial development in Cincinnati parks destroy the atmosphere, lead to less green space, and make them less accessible?

Opponents of Issue 22 argue that projects like building a marina at Smale Riverfront Park does nothing for the vast majority of local residents – only the small minority that own boats.

And the idea of building restaurants and beer gardens in the parks is of little benefit to anyone, opponents say.

“Really, do we need more restaurants and beer gardens, especially in city parks?,’’ Mooney said. “Parks should be places that are open and free. They shouldn’t be about commercial enterprises. They should be places where you can get away from the noise and traffic.

Who’s opposing this?

-         Save Our Parks, a group formed by Mooney and attorney Tim Mara that is trying to raise money and get the anti-Issue 22 message out.

-         The Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, a conservative group that has been involved in many anti-tax campaigns.

-         The Hamilton County Green Party.

-         Cincinnatians for Progress, a grassroots organization of urban activists who actively supported construction of Cincinnati’s streetcar.

-         Former Cincinnati vice mayor and NAACP president Marian Spencer, who originally backed the issue, but switched sides, saying she feared it would make parks less accessible.

-         Cincinnati council members Chris Seelbach, Charlie Winburn, Amy Murray, Wendell Young, Yvette Simpson. 

-          The Sierra Club of Ohio

-           Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition

-          The Adubon Society of Ohio 

-          The Charter Committee

Who’s supporting this?

-         The Cincinnati Park Board

-         City officials like Mayor John Cranley, Parks Director Willie Carden and Vice Mayor David Mann. Council members Kevin Flynn, P.G. Sittenfeld, and Christopher Smitherman are also in favor. 

-         The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

-         The Cincinnati Preservation Association.

-         The Cincinnati Democratic Committee.

The text of the charter amendment: 

Shall the Charter of the City of Cincinnati Article VIII, Taxation and Finance, be amended to add a new Section 9 for the purpose of establishing a permanent source of funding to be used by the Board of Park Commissioners for capital improvements and capital maintenance, including the acquisition of new park lands and green space, upgrades to existing park facilities and equipment, bicycle paths, and lighting and safety improvements, specifically as follows:

(a) Establish a tax levy for the benefit of the Cincinnati Parks Department for the purposes of (1) acquisition of new parks department land and facilities; (2) capital maintenance of new and existing parks department facilities; and (3) payment of debt service on parks department land and facilities at a rate not exceeding one mill for each one dollar of valuation, which amounts to 10 cents for each one hundred dollars of valuation;

(b) Twenty-five percent of the annual revenue generated by such additional levy shall be made available to the Board of Park Commissioners for any purpose permitted by section (a) except for the payment of debt service on parks department land and facilities;

(c) Seventy-five percent of the annual revenue generated by such additional levy shall be used in accordance with a capital program recommended by the Mayor of the City of Cincinnati and approved by the Board of Park Commissioners; and (d) Beginning with fiscal year 2016, the Council of the City of Cincinnati shall appropriate no less than $2,300,000.00 per year to the Cincinnati Parks Department and such appropriation shall be adjusted annually to reflect inflation?