We all love the parks. They've especially been a godsend throughout the pandemic, the perfect cure for cabin fever for thousands of Greater Cincinnatians.
But it should not have been an invitation for the GOP-controlled Hamilton County Great Parks board to make the unexpected and ill-advised decision recently to slap a huge property tax increase on the November ballot.
People are struggling to pay their mortgages, and a group of mostly wealthy Republican parks commissioners thinks it can sneak a whopping 1.8 mill levy through in a Democratic wave year.
To translate: Taxpayers would pay nearly double what they're already giving to the parks. Homeowners would annually pay an additional $63 per $100,000 of their home’s value. Oh, by the way, the 1.0 mill levy voters approved for Great Parks in 2016 won't be going away.
It gets worse.
There's no set plan for how to use the money.
That's right. The parks district doesn't have a plan, despite the election being three months away – and early voting starting in just nine weeks. No documents, campaign website or any other public materials exist to show exactly how the money is going to be used.
"You're right. I don't have it," said Todd Palmeter, Great Parks CEO. "I can tell you we're working on it."
The parks board has until Wednesday to officially submit the tax levy to be on the ballot. It'd be wise for the board to call this off and spend time to building a broad, bipartisan coalition, put a solid plan together and get public buy-in. It'd help to do this when the pandemic is over. Great Parks are a great asset and this is worth doing right.
By comparison, those who put together the recently passed county public transportation levy spent five years working on a plan. It was well known more than a year before the April primary that there would be a levy asking for a sales tax increase.
Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, labor organizers and bus advocates all came together and worked to get public buy-in. It still barely passed, even in an election that saw mostly Democratic voters.
God bless Palmeter, who has only been on the job for a little over a year. His board has thrown him to the wolves. He has to go around to all the political leaders and candidates and ask them to support the levy – after his board made the decision. That's not how these things are typically done.
"It's the height of arrogance to put something on the ballot without first running it by elected leadership and vetting it with the public," said former Cincinnati mayor Charlie Luken, a Democrat who helped run the city's failed parks levy in 2015. "It's complete tone deafness. I cannot imagine what they are thinking in the middle of a pandemic. I can't find anybody who seems to have an idea what they're going to do with the money."
In fairness, the parks board has been asking citizens since 2017 what they want to see improved. But that was part of a master plan, which was completed in January 2019. There had been no mention to the public of another parks levy until the board sent out a press release on July 16.
The five-member board includes influential Republicans Ginger Warner and Buck Niehoff. Marcus Thompson, who ran unsuccessfully for Anderson Township trustee last year, is the board chairman. The parks commissioners are appointed by Republican Probate Judge Ted Winkler.
Great Parks are among a handful of county agencies in which the commissioners have no oversight or say on levies.
In a blue-leaning county – especially in an election year with Trump at the top of the ticket – support from Democratic leaders is critical. But many of them found out about the levy through media reports.
That's a huge political misstep. No one from the parks even bothered to give Commissioner Denise Driehaus a heads up. As president of the board of commissioners, the Democrat is the county's top elected executive official. She's scheduled to have her first official meeting to discuss the levy on Friday when Driehaus and Palmeter will sit down.
Driehaus told me she'd give the parks the courtesy of first having the meeting before taking an official stance on the levy, but she added: "I’m a little concerned about the process. I’m concerned about the timing in addition to the amount of money being requested. I worry about the impact to the rest of the levies (in the future)."
Democratic commissioner candidate Alicia Reece, the favorite to replace the late Todd Portune, echoed some of Driehaus' concerns.
"I’m not against the parks, but I don’t think the timing is right from what I’m hearing from the voters," Reece said. "They can’t afford a tax increase right now."
Her opponent, Republican Andy Black, did not return a message seeking comment.
With 21 parks and preserves, Great Parks has a $34.7 million annual budget. It's had to cut $4.7 million from its budget this year because of the coronavirus. It typically has about 1,000 employees, 800 of whom are part-time, as well as volunteers. It's had to cut more than 200 part-time employees.
In a 45-minute interview, I pressed Palmeter for a specific levy plan.
"If it doesn’t pass, we’re going to have to close parks, cut programs, cut staff," Palmeter said. "I can’t tell you today the specifics of what those would look like. That's not what we want to do."
It's not what any organization wants to do, but these are tough times. Hard decisions have to be made.
I asked if the parks had exhausted all cost-cutting measures before making the levy decision. Great Parks, for example, has 40 law enforcement officers, about 30 of whom are full time. What about having the county sheriff's department take that over? It's not been explored, Palmeter said.
What about raising user fees? The parks charges for daily and annual parking. An annual motor vehicle permit is $10 for county residents and $16 for non-county residents. Palmeter said the idea of raising the non-resident annual motor vehicle permit has been discussed, but no decision has been made.
If the levy were to pass, Palmeter mentioned the agency would like to expand bike trails, buy more land and add nature centers in the city of Cincinnati. Great Parks also has $64 million in deferred maintenance and upgrades on existing facilities.
Those are wants, not needs, especially when considering all the other recent countywide tax increases, including two sales tax hikes. It's another tax stacked on top of another tax in an ongoing game of political Jenga in Hamilton County.
Local politicians and bureaucrats, Republicans and Democrats, are pushing the limits on taxes. Eventually taxpayers' budgets will crumble, and people will move to Mason. Hamilton County now has the second-highest sales tax rate in the state (7.8%) after the bus levy passed. It already has a high property tax rate.
The parks can wait to add a few new bike trails.
Email Cincinnati.com political columnist Jason Williams: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: PX column: Hamilton County parks' surprise tax levy is 'complete tone deafness,' ex-Cincinnati mayor says
Source : https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/realestate/px-column-hamilton-county-parks-surprise-tax-levy-is-complete-tone-deafness-ex-cincinnati-mayor-says/ar-BB17odkb