Commission Race a Study in Contrasts

City politicos vying for countywide office

If Republican Chris Monzel defeats Democrat Jim Tarbell next week for the open seat on the Hamilton County Commission, it will be a victory filled with great ironies.

Most indicators currently give Monzel the edge, which means the GOP would regain control of the three-member commission. Commissioner David Pepper, a Democrat, isn't seeking reelection, opting instead to run for Ohio State Auditor.

That leaves Commissioner Todd Portune, a Democrat, and Commissioner Greg Hartmann, a Republican, anxiously awaiting the Nov. 2 election's outcome to see which direction county government will proceed next year.

About those ironies...

Irony No. 1: The single biggest problem facing county government is looming deficits in its account to pay the massive debt incurred in constructing new Bengals and Reds stadiums. That deal was pushed by Republicans in the 1990s and the backlash helped Democrats gain control of the body in 2006, for the first time in more than 40 years. Now concern about the deficits could swing control back to the GOP.

Irony No. 2: If it weren't for a backroom deal crafted by the two parties in 2008 — in an election cycle with record Democratic turnout due to Barack Obama — it's highly probable that Hartmann's spot on the commission would be filled with a Democrat, meaning that party would retain control no matter who won this year. But Portune and Hartmann each wanted to run unopposed, and party leaders agreed to the Faustian pact.

Irony No. 3: Monzel, a longtime Cincinnati city councilman, is trying to secure votes in outlying areas by claiming he is “a son of the suburbs.” In fact, Monzel lives in the city neighborhood of Spring Grove Village — not exactly most people's vision of a suburb — and once used his City Council inauguration speech to express his love for Cincinnati. “

And during this past year, I have been asked many times by people, 'When are you moving?' … and honestly my wife and I did think about moving out to the suburbs,” Monzel said at the time. “But I’m not a quitter; I’m a fighter. And I’m going to stay and fight for Cincinnati’s future.”

Oh, how a few years can change things.

Monzel, 42, is an engineer at GE Aviation in Evendale. He was appointed to City Council in 2001 to fill a vacancy and won election later that year. After Monzel lost reelection in 2003, he was appointed again to fill a council vacancy in 2005 and reelected ever since.

Tarbell, 68, is the former owner of Arnold’s Bar & Grill downtown and Grammer’s Restaurant in Over-the-Rhine. He's a longtime urban redevelopment advocate and was a well-known concert promoter in the 1970s. Tarbell lives in Pendleton and served on Cincinnati City Council from 1998-2007, stepping down due to term limits. During his last two years on the body, he was vice mayor.

Their campaigns for the commission seat have been a study in contrasts. Monzel has raised nearly $194,000, more than twice the roughly $87,000 raised by Tarbell, according to campaign finance reports. And where Monzel is airing TV and radio commercials, Tarbell is using old-fashioned personal appearances and mailers to try to get his message across to voters, although he plans one TV ad later in the campaign.

The proverbial elephant in the room in the race is how to pay for stadium construction debt. The account is facing a $13.2 million deficit next year, an amount that will jump to $92 million by 2014 and could cumulatively total more than $700 million by 2032, when the Bengals’ lease expires.

In 1996, county voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase that was supposed to pay for the cost of building two new stadiums. Although the tax hike was supposed to cover all construction costs, actual revenues didn’t meet the unrealistic growth estimates given by supporters — like sales tax campaign manager Jeff Berding, now a city councilman — and aren't enough to cover the debt still owed.

Also, the stadiums came in over budget. Originally, supporters said both facilities could be built for $544 million. In reality, the Bengals stadium cost $458 million, while the Reds ballpark cost $337 million. Hundreds of millions of dollars more are due in interest charges.

To gain voter support for the sales tax increase, the GOP-controlled county commission included a property tax rebate. Some of the revenues generated by the increase would go to property owners, supposedly to offset the additional amount they pay in sales tax.

During appearances at debates throughout the county and at WCPO-TV (Channel 9), the two candidates' positions about the deficit differ sharply.

Tarbell proposes reducing the property tax rebate or restricting it to parcels valued at $150,000 or less.

“The budget, except for the stadium budget, is balanced,” Tarbell says. “The stadium budget is a serious matter and needs to be resolved. I'm not, at this point in time, recommending we cut anything … I don't know of any one area right now that has fat.”

Monzel, though, believes that the county budget should be divided into two categories, services that are state-mandated and ones that aren't, and more cutting should be done to the latter.

“Anything else that's not mandated by the state is on the table,” Monzel says. “You can do that by finding waste and inefficiencies in the processes.” As part of his GE job, Monzel says he must identify 10 percent in productivity savings each year, a tactic he would use at the county.

Tarbell notes commissioners in the past few years already have reduced county spending about 20 percent — back to 1998 levels — and laid off nearly 1,000 workers.

“The general fund is balanced,” Tarbell says.” We don't need to cut it any more or lay off more people.”

Rather, he wants to reduce the rebate and renegotiate the Reds' stadium lease, which he believes will pressure the recalcitrant Bengals to do likewise.

Presumably, if Monzel were elected, he could support Hartmann's earlier proposal for cutting the deficit. That plan — rejected last summer by Democrats — called for reducing the property tax rebate in return for also reducing the amount collected by the property tax levy to pay for hospital care for the poor.

Under Hartmann's plan, the levy would be cut by 45 percent, or $22 million annually. The money — which was approved by voters and goes to University Hospital — would be a way to offset any added expense to property owners, Hartmann said at the time.

Although Monzel supports trying to leverage the Bengals into making concessions, he so far refuses touching the property tax rebate. “We've got to hold the line on hitting the easy button and raising taxes. That's the last thing we need to do in this recession,” he says.

But the sole idea that Monzel has presented in the campaign to grapple with the deficit — putting the two county-owned stadiums up for sale — already was tried, a fact he apparently didn't know. Seven months earlier, Portune announced he was open to any purchase offers, even from the Chinese or Saudis. None were forthcoming.

“Suspending the tax (rebate) is not raising taxes,” Tarbell says. “It's bringing it back to where we were all along. As commissioners, we have a legal obligation to resolve that.

“There's nothing left,” he adds. “Let's not kid ourselves. I'm the only one who's been honest with the taxpayers, that this is the only way to get the stadium debt resolved. It's not a way to run a campaign; it's not a way to win friends and influence people, but it's honest.”

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