Close Calls on Key Ballot Issues

Endorsements for the Nov. 6 election continue this week, with attention turning to the two most contentious ballot issues local voters will face: a new operating tax levy for Cincinnati Public Scho

Endorsements for the Nov. 6 election continue this week, with attention turning to the two most contentious ballot issues local voters will face: a new operating tax levy for Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) and a Hamilton County sales tax increase to fund a new jail and other safety programs.

Both tax issues address long-simmering funding needs by raising huge amounts of public money — CPS would receive $325 million over the next five years if Issue 22 passes, and Hamilton County would receive $736 million over the next 15 years if Issue 27 passes.

Levy opponents question the need for such taxpayer support, the manner in which the money would be spent and even the tax mechanisms themselves. Those against the CPS levy, for instance, object to the fact that the new levy would mean as much as 70 percent of a Cincinnati homeowner's property tax bill goes to the school district.

Some of those opposing the county jail plan object to the use of the sales tax, by its nature a regressive tax that costs a poor person the same half cent as a middle- or upper-income person, who in theory won't miss the extra pennies.

Support for both issues is fairly strong among the local establishment, especially for Issue 27, which all three political parties in the city (Democrat, Republican and Charter) endorse. The usual anti-tax and anti-public school spoilers are lurking just below the radar as well.

I have to admit that these are two of the most difficult issues I've ever faced in CityBeat's endorsement process. Not that long ago I was leaning toward opposite opinions on both issues, which only confirms the complexities involved.

My main advice for these issues is to read as much as you can and get informed.

Then vote on Nov. 6.

Issue 22: Cincinnati Public School Operating Levy: Yes This five-year levy provides additional operating funds for Cincinnati Public Schools, basically replacing the district's last new operating levy, which was passed in 2000. This tax is for 9.95 mills for every $1 valuation of your property, costing the owner of a $100,000 house $294.24 per year.

The tax will raise an estimated $65 million per year to fund the school district's "emergency requirements." All Ohio school districts are required to come before voters to ask for both new and renewing tax levies; Cincinnati voters passed the district's renewing levy in 2004 and, as mentioned, passed the most recent new levy in 2000 (CPS could have come back to voters in 2005 to replace it but stretched the tax money an extra two years). Voters also passed the district's one-time building construction tax levy in 2003.

In many ways, the school district is in better shape than at any time in recent memory. Test scores have improved to the point that CPS jumped two levels on the state's five level report card between 2002 and 2004 and has maintained its current level for three straight years, making Cincinnati one of the best performing big city districts in Ohio.

High school graduation rates have increased, new school buildings have opened throughout the city and the district's enrollment loss has stopped slipping so quickly.

There are a lot of negatives these days as well, starting with the projected $72 million deficit for next year. Add to that the uncertainty created with Superintendent Rosa Blackwell's announcement that she's retiring and a school board in flux, plus the declining enrollment (even if it's slowed), and CPS is in trouble.

Three of the seven School Board seats are up for grabs, and at least two new board members will be elected, with Rick Williams the only incumbent running. Melanie Bates is running for Cincinnati City Council, and if she wins her school board seat would also become available.

So the district is building or rehabbing almost all of its schools and struggling to keep up its academic status while consistently losing kids to charter, private and suburban schools. Meanwhile, the board has to find a new superintendent while figuring out how to tame a budget deficit that's tripled in three years, and in a month as many as four of the seven board seats could be occupied by newcomers.

It's that sort of chaos that brought me very close to endorsing a "no" vote on Issue 22. I was leaning toward suggesting that CPS come back to voters next spring after the School Board makeup was finalized and the superintendent search was completed or at least pretty far along.

Ultimately, it seems counterproductive to load up an already maxed out School Board with the additional stress of not having $65 million per year in operating funds. It's a tough call, as clearly the board isn't doing a good job handling the budget it currently oversees.

With all of the uncertainty facing the management of Cincinnati Public Schools, voters should offer a sliver of stability by providing five more years of dependable operating revenues. We sincerely hope this vote of confidence will provide a boost for all the positives the district has attained in recent years and a boost for the new board members to implement real change.

Issue 27: Hamilton County Sales Tax Increase: No Passage of this issue would raise the sales tax in Hamilton County from its current 6.5 percent to 7 percent for eight years (through 2015) and then to 6.75 percent for the next seven years (through 2022). During those 15 years, the tax increase is estimated to raise $736 million to fund the county's Comprehensive Public Safety Plan.

The plan's centerpiece is a new 1,800-bed adult jail, which would be built at the former Kahn's meat-packing plant on Spring Grove Avenue. It would replace three current jail facilities: the 100-year-old correctional center in Queensgate, which houses minimum, medium and maximum security inmates; Reading Road near Mount Auburn, which houses minimum security inmates receiving substance abuse treatment; and Turning Point in Walnut Hills, a non-secure facility housing those receiving DUI treatment.

The plan also would expand the county's two juvenile jails and remodel the downtown Justice Center, which would remain the county's central intake facility and continue to house inmates as well.

The plan funds annual operating costs for these facilities, for additional Hamilton County Sheriff patrols in the city, for the county's assumption of township and municipality emergency dispatch costs and for community- and facility-based treatment programs and inmate re-entry planning.

Hamilton County Commissioners passed this plan in a 2-1 vote in May, with Democrats Todd Portune and David Pepper favoring it and Republican Pat DeWine against it, but a variety of community groups gathered enough signatures to force the sales tax increase to the ballot. Now its fate is up to voters.

Voters defeated a sales tax plan last November that would have built a new jail. Favored by Republicans Phil Heimlich and DeWine, it would have raised the sales tax to 6.75 percent for 10 years to build a 1,800-bed facility (with no location specified) as well as to fund a three-year property tax reduction.

Heimich pegged his flagging commission re-election campaign to the jail construction issue, and both it and he lost. When CityBeat endorsed a "no" vote on that issue, we suggested that "the newly configured county commission board (with David Pepper instead of Heimlich) will be back next fall, if not sooner, with a better-thought-out and fairer plan."

And that's what happened. The Portune/Pepper plan is an improvement over what voters turned down last year, not only building a jail but including funds to operate it and, most importantly, focusing attention and money on cutting down Hamilton County's incredible rate of repeat offenders.

About seven out of every 10 criminals jailed in Hamilton County return to jail for committing another crime after being released, a recent study shows. More than half committed another crime within 22 days of being released.

So it makes sense to try to treat inmates for the substance abuses that contributed to their criminal offenses and likely will contribute to future criminal activity. It's an investment that hopefully would pay dividends years down the road in the form of fewer repeat inmates.

What makes this issue so difficult to decide is how many different groups have offered various arguments for and against it. Positions don't split along political party or ideology, as most races and ballot issues do, but instead have made strange bedfellows of rival organizations and pitted allies against each other.

(For more on the multi-faceted jail tax debate, see "Too Many Behind Bars?" on page 15. If you'd like to read the best analysis of the details and alliances behind Issue 27, check out Kevin Osborne's "Tax Revolt," issue of Sept. 12. No, we're not biased.)

Trying to decide yes or no, I've attempted to block out as many of the single-issue naysayers as possible and tried not to be influenced by which organization I'd end up aligned with (Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police on one side, Sheriff Simon Leis on the other). It's a very difficult call.

Ultimately, this new jail/safety plan is a huge investment in a solution that doesn't address the core problems in the Hamilton County justice system. Yes, a 100-year-old jail facility is out of date and needs to be replaced. Yes, treatment programs for inmates surely will reduce the repeat offender problems. And yes, continued sheriff's deputy patrols in Over-the-Rhine and elsewhere will help reduce crime rates.

But 81 percent of inmates in the county's facilities in 2006, according to a recent study, were there awaiting trial, up from just 37 percent in 1999. People are spending much too long waiting for their charges to be heard, and bonds are being used less frequently — perhaps because many bonds are being set too high these days.

Clearly, if the system worked better — if those arrested and jailed could quickly go to trial and if the county's public defender program were better funded and better staffed — there would be more jail beds available. If those arrested and jailed had improved access to domestic violence court, mental health court and drug court, there might be fewer repeat offenders and thus more jail beds available.

Here's something Osborne points out in his story "Too Many Behind Bars?": People in Hamilton County who have criminal charges against them ultimately dismissed spend twice as many days in jail as those who are ultimately found guilty. That can't possibly be true, and yet it is, according to a study conducted by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, commissioned by Hamilton County.

I've come around to the argument put forth that building more jail cells simply encourages local governments to arrest and jail more citizens. A larger supply helps create increased demand.

Having more jail cells than the county needs certainly wouldn't provide any incentive for county officials to overhaul our criminal justice system. Here's hoping that being forced back to the drawing board will finally end the decades-old drumbeat of "build more jails" and open a much-needed debate over how to build a fair and just justice system.

Next week: CityBeat endorsements for Cincinnati City Council and Cincinnati Board of Education, plus the world-famous "Who's Endorsing Whom" charts summarizing media, union, advocacy group and political party endorsements in all the races.

Contact john fox: jfox(at)

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