Cover Story: Dismantling the Fear Factory

Local elections provide an opportunity to face the future with hope, not fear

Fear is a powerful emotion. It often protects us from dangerous situations, but just as often it holds us back from trying something new.

Fear is also a powerful weapon in politics, particularly when used as a scare tactic. Back in 1993, when Issue 3 was on the city ballot, anti-gay organizers successfully scared African-American voters into believing that giving equal rights to gays would jeapordize blacks' civil rights. Back in 1996, pro-stadium organizers successfully scared county voters into keeping the Bengals from moving to Baltimore.

There have been plenty of other examples locally, but the point is that much of the reason why Cincinnati is struggling right now is due to fear — fear of the unknown, fear of disrupting the routine, fear of outside ideas, fear of making a mistake. The current situation might suck, many Cincinnatians believe, but at least we know what to expect.

Fear is a recurring theme as we approach election day on Nov. 5. Incumbents are entrenched in state government and in Congress. The "Heimlich" name looks familiar on yard signs.

Progressive ideas like treatment for first-time drug users, campaign finance reform and light rail are on the ballot. And the city's public school system wants to completely reinvent itself.

What's a frightened citizen to do but put his or her head in the sand and pull the lever marked "Keep Everything the Same"?

Cincinnati's notorious resistance to change and infamous inferiority complex will be severely tested Nov. 5. In particular, Dr. Jean Siebenaler, the MetroMoves transit tax, the Cincinnati Public Schools bond issue and campaign finance reform — individually and, especially, together — can put a bold new face on this region overnight.

One of these years we have to bury the prevailing attitude here that if it's a good idea it doesn't belong in Cincinnati, that Cincinnati doesn't deserve anything better and that Cincinnati is about as good as it's going to get. This is the year, and this is the election.

Hamilton County Commissioner: Dr. Jean Siebenaler
Commission challenger Phil Heimlich, who touts himself as a spendthrift, likes to point out that county spending has increased two and half times the rate of inflation over the past 10 years and that the amount of property taxes going to county levies has jumped dramatically. Surprisingly, he never points out that these increases were overseen by a 100 percent Republican county commission for 32 of the past 34 years.

So were the ill-fated sales tax increase for new stadiums and the horrible lease giveaways to the Bengals. So was the loss of county population over the past decade. So were controversies and scandals in the prosecutor's, coroner's and auditor's offices.

Auditor Dusty Rhodes and Commissioner Todd Portune are two of the few Democrats to be elected countywide since the mid-1960s and provide needed opposition to the status quo. Rhodes has done such a good job of streamlining his office and being an independent voice that he's running unopposed for re-election this fall. Portune has stubbornly pushed for a more open and responsive county government.

Jean Siebenaler is the right candidate at the right time to join Rhodes and Portune in trying to break the GOP's dominance of county government — and the higher taxes, higher spending and unresponsiveness that have come with it. She's the kind of "real world" candidate we've pushed for in local politics: a medical doctor, a business owner, a mother, a military veteran, a progressive.

If she wins this race — and if Issue 8 is defeated, keeping campaign finance reform intact in the city — Siebenaler could be the first of a wave of exceptional everyday citizens who become leaders in our communities. People who understand the issues important to you and me. People who don't fear change but are willing to be innovative. People who push aside career beaurocrats — such as Heimlich, a former assistant county prosecutor and Cincinnati City Councilman — and begin to change this area for the better.

U.S. House, Ohio District 1: Greg Harris
This is the space where CityBeat prints its bi-annual endorsement of whoever is running against incumbent Steve Chabot. His underfunded first-time Democrat challenger this time is Greg Harris, executive director of Citizens for Civic Renewal, the nonprofit public policy organization that promotes good government, volunteerism and civic engagement.

Harris is promoting good government the old-fashioned way — running for office and trying to make a difference. As a Congress-man, he'd represent most of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in Washington, and his views are representative of ours: He's for a living wage, for smart growth, for repeal of the city's anti-gay Article 12, for universal health coverage, for sensible gun control and for campaign finance reform.

Chabot, of course, is representative of an extremely conservative, backward-thinking constituency that has a foothold in Greater Cincinnati: He votes against raising the minimum wage and against campaign finance reform and opposes federal dollars being spent here on public transit. He's disengaged from the local community — remember all the time Chabot spent here trying to help bring the city together after the April 2001 riots? Me neither.

Chabot has always been more interested in playing partisan politics in D.C. — i.e, backing the loony scheme to invade Iraq — than in serving his district back home. Harris understands the complexity of the issues facing ordinary people and is well-suited to helping move this region forward.

Issue 2: Bond Issue for Cincinnati City School District: Yes
This would allow the Cincinnati Board of Education to issue bonds to pay the local share of school construction under the state's Classroom Facilities Assistance Program. City property owners would repay the debt service on the bonds, which is estimated to be levied at 4.89 mills — meaning the owner of a $100,000 house would pay $143 per year in additional taxes until the bonds are repaid (a maximum of 28 years).

The bonds would contribute $480 million in local funds that are to be combined with state, county and city funds to overhaul Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS). Between now and 2012, when the overhaul is complete, 35 new schools will be built and 31 schools renovated, leaving CPS with a total of 66 schools — 14 fewer than were operating last year. Total cost is estimated at $985 million.

For all those who bellyache that Cincinnati spends $1 billion on new stadiums but nothing on new schools, here's your plan. For all those who say big-ticket projects usually benefit downtown at the expense of neighborhoods, here's your plan. For all those who complain that CPS students can't learn in schools with leaky roofs, no air conditioning and faulty heat, here's your plan.

The last time voters approved a CPS bond issue was 1975, shortly before the last time a new school building was built in the city. With interest rates at their current low level and the state funds available only if this bond issue passes, now is the time to commit the local money.

The CPS plan is well-thought out, devised with lots of public input and supported by teachers and administrators alike. It will invest nearly $1 billion in the city, impacting practically every neighborhood. And it will be implemented by local architects, construction workers and support staffs.

It's a sound investment not only in the school system but in the city as a whole.

Issue 6: Hamilton County Tax Levy for Elderly Services: Yes
This represents a renewal of the county's existing Elderly Services Levy plus a 12 percent increase in order to maintain a system of home care for elderly residents. County property owners would pay the existing 1.02 mills and an increase of 0.14 mill — meaning the owner of a $100,000 house would pay $29.90 per year for the next five years.

The levy will allow the Council on Aging (COA) to continue to administer its Hamilton County Elderly Services Program for enabling elderly citizens to live as independently as possible. Services include homemaker/respite, personal care, home-delivered meals, adult day care, chore services, durable medical equipment, home repair, electronic monitoring systems and medical transportation. The program doesn't replace care provided by families but rather secures the necessary additional care they're unable to provide.

This levy was created in 1992 and renewed in 1997, so voters seem to understand that helping pay for in-home care is more cost effective than the alternative, institutional care. And with the general population getting older — the 85-plus age group is the fastest growing segment — costs continue to rise. COA estimates that its monthly cost per client served will have increased 76.4 percent between 1998 and 2007.

One of these days, county government will analyze these levies in relation to the total tax burden on property owners and devise a long-term strategy for funding worthy causes such as elderly services. In the meantime, such causes drip, drip, drip onto the ballot deserving of our support.

Issue 7: Increased Hamilton County Sales Tax for Public Transit: Yes
This would increase the county's sales tax from 6 percent to 6.5 percent for "a continuing period of time" to provide funds for all transit purposes of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which operates the city and county's bus system, Metro. The sales tax is levied on all purchases in the county except takeout food, movie tickets, utility bills, certain services and several other weird exceptions.

The tax would generate from $60 million to $120 million per year to help implement MetroMoves, the comprehensive 30-year plan to beef up the bus system and add light rail lines in Hamilton County. The plan includes rail service into surrounding counties, but those counties would be responsible for funding their portions. We'd become the eighth county in Ohio to use sales taxes to fund public transit — the ninth if Butler County voters pass their own sales tax measure on Nov. 5.

MetroMoves makes sense on every level imaginable. First off, the federal government is poised for another round of transportation grants to local projects, and those grants aren't awarded without a dedicated source of local funds. If Issue 7 fails, the federal money goes somewhere else and Steve Chabot, who's co-chairing the effort to defeat Issue 7, can add another notch to his "Forget the home folks" belt.

The funding for the $2.6 billion MetroMoves plan breaks down this way: 50 percent federal funds, 25 percent state funds and 25 percent funds from the county sales tax. If you believe local studies that say non-county residents pay about half of all sales taxes in Hamilton County, county voters end up funding about one-eighth the cost of a state-of-the-art transit system. That's a damn good deal.

And if the entire system is built over the next 30 years — with Clermont, Butler, Warren and Northern Kentucky counties coming on board to construct the envisioned $4.5 billion system — Hamilton County residents will end up funding 1/12th of the total cost. An even better deal.

Light rail — the most costly part of this plan — is a scary proposition for many local folks. It seems a revolutionary idea, yet the reality is that, as usual, Cincinnati lags behind other cities in introducing it. And not just glitzy cities like San Francisco and San Diego, but real work-a-day cities like St. Louis, Dallas and Portland, Ore.

Light rail works in St. Louis, Dallas and Portland — ridership has been higher than expected, and additional lines have been built. Go to those cities and see for yourself — city neighborhoods are being revitalized by rail service, people who never rode public transit are riding it now and they're becoming communities that depend less and less on cars.

When an idea is somewhat scary, as light rail is in Cincinnati, there's an opening for politicians to prey on fear. And Issue 7 detractors are jumping into the breach. Mayor Charlie Luken and City Councilman John Cranley say MetroMoves benefits the county more than the city; some suburban politicians say the plan favors downtown over the suburbs. Nothing better than a little "us vs. them" rhetoric to inform the discussion, huh?

Anti-rail "fact" sheets are distributed saying the trains are too slow ("like a bicycle") but later saying they roar through quiet neighborhoods at speeds up to 50 mph. They complain of trains riding on streets with cars, clogging traffic, and later say the trains cross hundreds of streets with frequent delays. So let me get this straight: Light rail trains creep along except when they approach a neighborhood, when they speed up in order to careen down busy streets and then loop back to cross the same streets over and over? OK, well, you've won me over.

The last time county voters considered a sales tax increase, in 1996, CityBeat endorsed a "no" vote on the stadium plan. We felt that the stadium construction plan wasn't thought out at all, that the county had no experience building new stadiums and that public dollars would unfairly benefit private businesses (Bengals and Reds) and the relatively few people (as a percentage of population) who can afford to attend their games.

The circumstances surrounding MetroMoves couldn't be more different: Metro, OKI and civic organizations have been meeting about and planning this proposed transit for years, with public input at every step of the way; Metro has done a good job running the existing bus system and has formed a partnership with TANK across the river to build and operate the entire light rail system; and public transit, by its nature, serves a wide swath of the population, while light rail in other cities has proven to attract new riders to public transit from every possible economic and social level.

A publicly funded project that actually benefits every member of the public? Whoa, that's crazy talk!

If you're afraid that Cincinnati doesn't deserve a progressive, comprehensive transit system, can't handle it and will likely only screw it up, well, you're probably in the majority. But Issue 7 is the time and the place to face our fear of the future and open ourselves to possibilities as a community.

Issue 8: City Charter Amendment to Stop Public Funding of Campaigns: No
This would prohibit the city from enacting the public funding component of the campaign finance reform package passed by voters last fall that goes into effect with the 2003 Cincinnati City Council elections.

Last fall, in a very close decision, city voters passed a comprehensive package of reforms for city elections — contribution limits for individuals, PACs and political parties; better disclosure of donations to candidates; voluntary partial public funding for candidates who agree to spending limits; and a volunteer citizen board to oversee the process. CityBeat endorsed that ballot initiative, mostly because of the hard work of the coalition of progressive groups behind it — League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Woman's Political Caucus, Sierra Club, Ohio Citizen Action, Alliance for Democracy and a dozen others.

When it was later revealed that the losing anti-reform campaign was funded almost entirely by a handful of local corporations, the contrast against the winning grassroots effort was remarkable. And now, before the plan can even be implemented, the anti-reformers are back again to force another vote (funded, no doubt, by the same small cadre of corporations).

Here's what the fight is all about: These corporations want to have more influence over who runs City Hall than you do. They didn't respect your decision last year, and they're throwing more money at you to change your mind.

With no reform, corporations and wealthy individuals can finance $500,000 campaigns for city council and overwhelm any and all opposition. Anyone who's new, from a third party, running as an independent and/or heading a grassroots campaign has virtually no chance to get elected under that kind of system. Look no further than last year's council race, when, even after a disastrous year of riots and economic stagnation, every incumbent was re-elected.

In cities and states that have enacted campaign reform, non-career politicians are winning races and becoming community leaders — women, minorities, independents, ordinary folks. We certainly have too few people like that at Cincinnati City Hall, and that's a big reason our city is at a standstill.

Campaign reform made sense last year, and it still makes sense. Let's at least give it a real shot before we start picking it apart. ©