Like Issue 3’s effort to legalize marijuana, Mayor John Cranley’s proposal to amend the city’s charter in order to fund improvements to the city’s parks presents an ostensibly attractive goal wrapped in an untenable package.
CityBeat strongly supports Cincinnati’s amazing outdoor public spaces, from Mount Airy Forest to Ault Park. Like Mayor Cranley and other Issue 22 proponents, we’re concerned about those parks staying funded and kept up.
The property tax proposed by Issue 22 would cost about $35 a year per $100,000 in home value — a relatively small price to pay for our parks. But we’re concerned about the amendment’s vague language stipulating how that money will be used and who will control it. Further, there are more pressing concerns city residents should — and soon will — be asked to spend tax dollars on, including extending opportunities for preschool to Cincinnati’s low-income children.
A tax increase proposal to fund Preschool Promise, a program endeavoring to do just that, looks likely next year, and we believe it is a more worthy cause at a time when more than 44 percent of the city’s children live below the poverty line and lack access to quality early childhood education. Another worthy cause, a funding increase for Metro to boost public transit in the region, also seems likely. Though they may not take the same form as Issue 22’s property tax increase, both of these vital initiatives could very likely face a harder time at the ballot box should the parks tax pass this year.
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Perhaps more importantly, we believe the voting public should be wary of Issue 22, which would give control of the proceeds of a permanent 1 mill property tax boost to the mayor and the Cincinnati Park Board with no formal stated requirement for public meetings or City Council input. While Council might have to give final approval over money borrowed for parks projects, and while public input might still happen, requirements for robust input simply aren’t spelled out in the document that will become a permanent part of the city’s charter.
We’re also concerned that the levy could lead to further commercialization of city parks — a trend we’ve already seen play out at Over-the-Rhine centerpiece Washington Park.
While we wholeheartedly support some of the proposed projects funded by the levy, others give us pause. The King Records site in Evanston absolutely needs to be purchased, preserved and turned into a monument to the neighborhood’s rich musical history, and the Evanston community deserves such an investment. But for every project like King Records among the proposals, there’s a Burnet Woods situation lurking. In the past, Mayor Cranley has said he’d like to see the space look more like Washington Park, with “creepy” trees thinned out in one of Cincinnati’s central urban woods. Though Cranley has since backed off a proposed restaurant in Burnet, it’s clear Issue 22 advocates envision a “transformational” change to the space. We don’t think it needs to be transformed.
Other projects, including a private-public partnership with Western & Southern Financial Group for a $5 million facelift of Lytle Park downtown, also seem ill-advised. Why should tax money be used to spruce up a park that plays into a real estate strategy for one of Cincinnati’s wealthiest corporations, which fought the city to a legal standstill just a few years ago over zoning of a women’s shelter so it could build a luxury hotel? That’s a bad deal for taxpayers.
We believe that spending millions in public money to transform Lytle Park or Burnet Woods would be a disastrous mistake that misunderstands and irrevocably changes the intended purpose and unique character of those beloved public spaces, and we’re not alone.
Notable parks advocates have come out against Issue 22. Among them is Cincinnati political veteran, former vice mayor and council member Marian Spencer, who wrote a letter to Parks Director Willie Carden last month withdrawing her support for the charter amendment, calling it “bad policy.” Spencer has sat on the city’s Charter Committee Board for 75 years. In the letter, she cites attractions that cost money like the carousel at Smale Riverfront Park as a dangerous precedent in which admission charges creep into public spaces already paid for by taxpayers.
“It is with regret that after carefully reading the text of the parks levy that I cannot support it,” she wrote. “This action is difficult for me because when asked for my support last June, I was unaware that this would be a charter amendment rather than a normal property tax levy, or that its income would be used only for capital projects.”
Other notable opponents of Issue 22 include the Cincinnati Charter Committee, which switched its stance from neutral to actively against the charter amendment earlier this month. This is the group that was founded to fight for clear, transparent government in Cincinnati. They’ve been balanced and fair in their assessments of many issues, and we trust them when they say they have serious reservations about the parks amendment.
Supporters of the mayor’s proposal point out that 25 percent of the $5 million raised annually by the levy would be used for park maintenance. But, here again, the amendment’s language is tricky, and there are no guarantees offered. The language stipulates only that the 25 percent mentioned not go to servicing debt taken on by the Park Board, freeing it up for any other use.
Meanwhile, the rest of the money would be leveraged to raise more
than $80 million in bonds for capital projects to realize Cranley’s visions. That’s debt that the city’s taxpayers will be paying for years, long after Cranley and park board members are well out of office.
What’s more, the language of the charter amendment makes no guarantee that the projects as presented will be the ones that actually get those funds. That’s up to the mayor and the park board he appoints. Though some point out that Ohio law requires City Council to approve issuance of those bonds, the ballot language does not clearly spell out any role for Council in making the plans that will be funded by those bonds, and in the past Cranley has argued that a role for Council in that capacity isn’t necessary.
We’re also very concerned about recent revelations regarding the way the Cincinnati Park Board has handled money in the past. That includes a $200,000 check the board cut to the pro-Issue 22 campaign — money it asked be returned after public questions about the propriety of that donation. Though the board says the money came from a private endowment, not public funds, the donation of funds from a public entity to a patently political campaign looks troubling.
More importantly, questions around hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on bonuses to Park Board leaders and trips taken to Los Vegas using funds from the park endowments are dubious. Some of those bonus funds paid to Carden and another park head were returned after a confidential settlement in 2013, but other funds have not been. Cranley has ordered an audit of the way the Park Board manages its money, and we eagerly await the results of that audit. In the meantime, these revelations of questionable payments do not inspire trust in an organization to which tax payers are being asked to give control over fresh millions in tax money.
The mayor says he’ll need community support to pull off any of the projects that would be funded by his proposed measure, and that public meetings will be held around any project. But again, none of that is spelled out in the amendment language, a fact even parks supporter Brewster Rhoads acknowledged during a recent debate in which he argued for the amendment.
If Mayor Cranley wants to improve our parks, he should do so by the tried and true means, pushing projects one at a time, holding public meetings and presenting ideas through Cincinnati City Council. Perhaps some of the improvements to the parks could even be funded with the city’s $19-million budget surplus, while others could be helped along by private philanthropy from the powerful groups advocating for those projects in the first place.
If Issue 22 advocates wanted guaranteed money solely for park maintenance, that’s a levy we’d likely support. But a permanent blank check for changes to our parks with little guaranteed oversight is something the city just can’t afford.