COAST, Finney Helped Create Stadium Mess

Some politicians and activists hate the media. Although they might say it's because of a perceived bias in coverage, the truth is it usually has more to do with holding them accountable for past words and deeds that otherwise might be long forgotten. For

Feb 24, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Some politicians and activists hate the media.

Although they might say it’s because of a perceived bias in coverage, the truth is it usually has more to do with holding them accountable for past words and deeds that otherwise might be long forgotten.

For example, consider the current ranting and raving by the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and one of its leaders, attorney Chris Finney, about the deficit in Hamilton County’s stadium account.

Finney and others affiliated with COAST recently appeared at a public hearing to tell county commissioners that they oppose any effort to either raise the county’s sales tax or reduce a property tax rebate to plug the hole in the stadium account. The account is facing a $13.8 million deficit this year, which will jump to $25 million in a few years.

After a heavy-handed campaign based on fear mongering about the Reds and Bengals possibly leaving town, county voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase in 1996. The tax hike was supposed to pay for the cost of building two new stadiums for the teams.

Because tax revenues didn’t meet the rosy estimates given by supporters, they’re not enough to cover the massive construction debt still owed for the stadiums.

Finney (pictured) and his crew are bellowing that the current Hamilton County Commission — which just happens to be controlled by Democrats — is in the predicament because it spends too much on other items. COAST wants cutbacks elsewhere to deal with the deficit.

This outlook depends on a highly selective view of history. No commission in decades has been as conservative in its spending as have the ones since Democrats took control in 2006. In the past two years, commissioners have cut spending by about $60 million, or 22 percent. In fact, county spending has now been reduced to 1998 levels.

Also, Finney says the real issue behind the stadium deficit is the onerous lease terms for Paul Brown Stadium, hashed out in the late 1990s. The lopsided lease requires the county to pay for expensive upgrades to the stadium and split some revenues with the Bengals when the facility is used for other purposes and allows the team not to pay any rent at all in the deal’s later years.

Never mind that the lease was pushed through by a Republican-controlled county commission determined to get a deal no matter the cost. That effort was headed by then-County Commission President Bob Bedinghaus, who now is, coincidentally I’m sure, a Bengals employee.

The truth is, sales tax revenues are so low that once Finney’s beloved property tax rebate and obligations to Cincinnati Public Schools are paid, there’s not enough money left to pay for the two stadiums’ debt service — lease or no lease.

All of which brings us around to Finney’s original support for the 1996 sales tax deal.

In a guest column published in the Forest Hills Journal on Sept. 13, 1995, Finney lavished praise on how fiscally sound the deal was and urged voters to approve it. Calling it “a perfectly sensible plan,” Finney added, “The plan makes sense, and it won’t cost me a nickel.”

At the time, Finney was a leader of Cincinnatians United Against Taxes and Spending, a forerunner to COAST. To gain the group’s support, county officials agreed to use about one-third of sales tax revenues to rebate some property taxes for homeowners.

In his column, Finney wrote that the “typical Anderson Township homeowner family” had a house valued at $191,000 and had $45,000 in annual disposable income. “The proposed lower property taxes will save this family $172 annually. The increased sales tax will cost the same family around $121. Per family savings: $51 per year.

“How does this magic happen — that a tax increase results in lower out-of-pocket expenses and solves these crushing problems? The half of the taxes not returned to property owners will be paid by out-of-county residents.”

Silly conservatives, always seeking something for nothing. Despite his claim, Finney isn’t psychic and had no idea how much would be generated by non-Hamilton County residents. He also doesn’t mention the sales tax paid by county residents who don’t own property and receive no offsetting rebate — like low-income people. No, all that mattered to Finney was that he and his neighbors got enough back to help pay for their golf or swimming club fees.

COAST has long opposed most social services spending like welfare. That philosophy, however, doesn’t extend to subsidies for private businesses.

“Some argue that the Bengals and Reds are private enterprises that should fend for themselves,” Finney wrote. “This argument will seem a bit hollow when we are watching the Baltimore Bengals or the Jacksonville Reds while eating from TV trays in our basement.”

It gets better. Remember when COAST joined forces with the local NAACP in 2007 to defeat a proposed sales tax increase to build a new jail? Well, Finney was for the jail before he was against it.

An early version of the ’90s sales tax hike included plans for a new jail, before it was cut from the plan. Finney wrote back then, “We get a new jail. This is needed because the State will soon be sending more than 500 prisoners back to Hamilton County for incarceration. Without it, we will free hundreds of prisoners in the next two years and face a crippling deficit that will result in other service cutbacks.”

Finney concluded his column with, “All in all, the sales tax plan masterfully solves several difficult problems for the region.”

Let’s recap: Anti-tax leaders supported a ’90s sales tax hike if it included a property tax rebate. Without that tax increase, Hamilton County would have the lowest sales tax rate in Ohio. Because of the rebate, the stadium account is facing a deficit.

This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Chrissy. Frankly, if Finney’s judgment was so off the mark and flat-out wrong about what’s turned into one of the worst deals in Hamilton County’s history, how can anyone possibly trust what he has to say about current events?

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