"Icon tax" debate continues

Jul 28, 2014

Supporters donning yellow t-shirts and stickers pack county commission chambers Monday with overflow in the hallway beyond.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

Update 7/29/14 9 a.m.: Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley's staff is confirming reports he would have the city make annual payments toward the upkeep of Union Terminal for the next 25 years.  Cranley says he will propose that the city continue to make $200,000 annual payments toward Union Terminal’s maintenance. The city is currently paying that amount, but there is no legal obligation to continue it.

The public has had its say, now Hamilton County Commissioners must decide whether they'll place a proposal to renovate Music Hall and Union Terminal on the November ballot.

The proposal from the Cultural Facilities Task Force requests a nine-year, quarter cent sales tax to fund renovations and repairs to the two aging buildings. It would bring Hamilton County's sales tax to an even seven percent.

During the second of two public hearings Monday, proponents packed county commission chambers. They discussed their love for the buildings and the need to preserve them. Several also addressed concerns brought up by opponents in recent weeks.


A diagram of the "Fair Share" approach favored by Citizens Oversight Board.
Credit EmpowerU / Provided

Opponents like Dan Regenold say the plan is rushed, doesn't address who owns the buildings and doesn't evenly distribute the cost burden. "Please don't let this be a rush to judgment," says Regenold. "Too many of the stakeholders are only minimally involved. This will lead to future problems and more requests for county intervention and funding. We need a plan more like "Fair Share" where everyone has to pitch in.  Everyone has got to be a partner."

Sharon McCullom says the community has already paid enough for the buildings. She says, "We paid this money all these years thinking that the people that we elected were taking care of these buildings and all of a sudden we find out they're doing deferred maintenance. I think that this bill should be deferred to the people that deferred to take care of them."

COAST member Jeff Capell says user fees need more consideration and wants Cincinnati to kick in more money as well. "Proponents say they support a user fee but there is no user fee agreement for either building," he says. "They've talked about raising more money privately but that's not the same as getting it. They've talked about getting more from the City of Cincinnati and we've seen how well that is going."


In the past Capell has likened the proposed tax to the stadium sales tax. Proponent John Rockwell has a different comparison. "Don't look to the stadiums, look to the Albee Theater," says Rockwell. "When you look to the Albee Theater, it's gone! It's not there. What a beautiful addition to downtown Cincinnati that Albee Theater would be today if it were still there."

Cultural Facilities Task Force chair Bob McDonald disagrees with the idea that the plan was rushed and doesn't address ownership. "We put together this finely tuned planned to get ownership right in order to get those tax credits and also to be able to take care of the buildings long term," he says. "One of the complaints we've heard is this is a rush to judgment. This isn't a rush, we've been working on this for nine months."

Commissioner Todd Portune asked proponents to specifically address the idea of 'want' versus 'need' at Music Hall. Some opponents suggest requested renovations there are more cosmetic than imperative.

Steve Loftin is president of the Cincinnati Arts Association. He says, "The last major renovation of Music Hall took place in the early 1970's. As a result, most of the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are well over forty years old and have far exceeded their useful lives. While modest updates and constant repairs have occurred over the years, the fact remains these systems are all living on borrowed time and are now subject to failure."

Accessibility is also a big problem for Music Hall. Nancy Jeffery-Stange says she and her husband love attending the Cincinnati Symphony but doing so is challenging since they both have disabilities. "Music Hall would be woefully non-compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act were it to be built today in its current state. From the seating in the auditorium to the restrooms, it deserves to bring its disabled visitors a safe and enjoyable experience."

Proponents say now is the time to act. They argue the current plan may not be perfect but it is viable and sound. They say delaying will only increase costs in the future.

What's Next?

County Commissioners have until August 6 to decide whether the issue will go on the November ballot. Each says he has questions. Todd Portune says he doesn't believe the plan was rushed but he still wonders if it's the right plan. Board President Chris Monzel says he needs legal assurances the county won't end up on the hook if something goes wrong, like it is with the stadiums. And he says repairs to Dalton Street where it runs under the Union Terminal fountain should be Cincinnati's responsibility and not included in the proposal.