Cover Story: Endorsements

Election Day is your time to place stepping stones

Oct 27, 2004 at 2:06 pm

Last week CityBeat published its endorsements in what we consider the "big four" questions of this election cycle: John Kerry for President, No on Issue 1 (defining marriage in Ohio and Kentucky), Yes on Issue 3 (repealing Article 12) and Fanon Rucker for Hamilton County Prosecutor. Click Here For Last Week's Endorsements And we said that, even though the Kerry-Bush race presents the Big Decision on the direction of the country, it's the smaller races that really shape our communities and impact our daily lives more directly.

So we now offer our endorsements in many of those races. And we'll reiterate our overall position from last week:

As is the case just about every November, this year's ballot offers small steps toward or away from a progressive path in Greater Cincinnati. Individually, none of these votes will make or break this region — but together they'll demonstrate a willingness to push ourselves forward to a more hopeful future or a desire to give in to fear and turn on each other.

Tuesday is our opportunity to lay down stepping stones to build a progressive path, and we certainly encourage you to take the time to consider your role as citizen and to vote.

There are a ton of races and campaign issues facing us, and it's easy to shut down in the face of a blizzard of information, misinformation and disinformation. We can't think of anything we're more proud of at CityBeat than when readers tell us they count on the paper to cut through the spin — particularly from this region's conservative media and business community — and tell them the truth about the issues and candidates facing them in the voting booth.

It's a responsibility we take seriously here, and even with a small staff we try to go above and beyond to provide you the information you desire. More than 80 CityBeat articles and columns on these and other election issues are available at our Election 2004 archives at

We also work hard to compile our "Who's Endorsing Whom" charts, which are published in this week's paper. It's an idea we "borrowed" years ago from the venerable San Francisco Bay Guardian alt weekly, and it's become one of the most popular features we do each election season.

We've included some up-to-the-minute information on two current election controversies, provisional ballots and the write-in race for Hamilton County Prosecutor.

May the best men, women and issues win Tuesday. And God help us all if they don't.

Hamilton County Commission: Todd Portune and Eve Bolton
We've supported Todd Portune throughout his career on Cincinnati City Council and his first term on the County Commission. His surprise victory over incumbent Bob Bedinghaus four years ago broke 36 years of Republican domination of the three-member commission, and now he's poised to join that rarest breed of politician in Hamilton County — a re-elected Democrat.

In our upside-down political reality, where Republicans are tax-and-spenders and Democrats fight for fiscal restraint, Portune finally found an ally when Phil Heimlich won a seat two years ago. Portune not only has saved the county money by keeping taxes as low as possible, but he's come up with better ways to use taxpayer funds and has even fought to recoup taxpayer dollars from the Bengals' stadium deal.

And now he's also poised to have a Democratic ally in addition to budget buddy Heimlich with the election of Eve Bolton, who's running against Councilman Pat DeWine for an open seat. Bolton has already served in county government before, as Recorder from 1992-96, and soon will be retiring after 32 years teaching history and government at Wyoming High School.

It's been since John F. Kennedy was president that Democrats held two of the three commission seats, yet many voters have expressed concern that, should DeWine win, three ex-city council members will be running county government.

Bolton savors the role of an outsider, pinning DeWine's success at raising tons of money for this and previous campaigns to ties to his father, Sen. Mike DeWine, and big-name campaign contributors who expect something in return. Her main issue in this race is to stem Hamilton County's population decline by cutting the cost of county government through reform and cooperation, reducing the tax burden, investing in established communities and preserving the area's natural beauty.

Hamilton County Coroner: O'dell Owens

County Treasurer: Bob Drake

County Recorder: Steve Brinker

County Clerk of Courts: Martha Good
Two things to consider here: If you complain about the Republican Party's chokehold on Hamilton County government, as many of you do, these offices are small steps to more equitable treatment of all citizens. In last week's endorsement of Rucker, we said the Prosecutor's office has long been the GOP's seat of power in the county, from which a "farm team" of talent is groomed for other duties.

These other administrative offices might seem insignificant from a political point of view, but there are reasons Republicans fight to hold on to them: They make staff jobs available to friends and family members, and they back each other up.

The second thing to consider is, with Republicans holding these positions for decades, why do the Democratic challengers seem to have all the interesting new ideas for contributing to Hamilton County's growth and well-being?

Dr. O'dell Owens wants to strengthen the Coroner's ability to protect our community by promoting healthy lifestyles and by working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The incumbent, Carl Parrott, promotes his connection to putting criminals in jail by providing autopsy results to law enforcement.

Martha Good wants to make citizen privacy her top priority as Clerk of Courts and put an end to job patronage in the office. The incumbent, Greg Hartmann, promotes his connection to putting criminals in jail by signing death warrants.

Steve Brinker wants to allocate and "right size" staffing levels in the Recorder's office to avoid backlogs as he says conservative Democrat (and consistent winner) Dusty Rhodes has done in the Auditor's office. The incumbent, Rebecca Prem Groppe, promotes her connection to putting criminals in jail by chasing identity thieves.

And Bob Drake wants to radically redefine the Treasurer's role in Hamilton County — well, it's only radical if you think the Treasurer should work full time for his $64,000 salary, you think the county should collect $55 million in delinquent property taxes and you think you can give county residents a tax break via early payment of property taxes. Drake not only thinks these ideas are possible, he's basing them on similar programs that are successes throughout Ohio and the United States.

The incumbent, Bob Goering, doesn't promote his connection to putting criminals in jail — at least not as Treasurer, which is one of his two "full-time" jobs. He's also a practicing attorney.

The Republican incumbents don't seem to try as hard as their challengers to come up with innovative ideas for their offices, because they don't have to. There's only one way to change that attitude.

U.S. Congress, Ohio 1st District: Greg Harris
For the second straight election, Greg Harris is challenging incumbent Rep. Steve Chabot. And for the second straight election, Harris stands on the right side of the important issues facing Cincinnati and Hamilton County voters.

No one disputes that Chabot is a nice guy from the West side, but hardly anyone can cite his specific projects or programs that have made a major impact on life here. Chabot is a down-the-line Republican who backs all the correct Republican issues and receives all the usual big-business campaign support.

Harris' approach is much more in tune with a big-city congressional district that's diverse in terms of race, income, age, sexuality and such. He particularly supports working people who've been drowned out by the money of wealthy special interests and points out that Chabot has taken more than $2 million from special interests during his time in Congress.

Harris supports the bipartisan Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003, which would require officials to ensure a voter-verified paper trail for future elections. Chabot is not one of the bill's 141 co-sponsors.

And Harris' progressive positions on health care, fair taxation, stronger homeland security paired with protection of personal freedom, the environment, public education and social equality would be much more in line with President Kerry and help advance those positions nationally.

U.S. Congress, Kentucky 4th District: Nick Clooney
The longtime Greater Cincinnati media figure has decided to shift his relationship with the public to the political arena, running for an open congressional seat. His common-sense, moderately liberal views have been on display for years now in his Cincinnati Post columns, and his Kentucky roots and Bluegrass pride are easy to spot.

Nick Clooney's opponent has tried to label him as "Hollywood elite" because famous son George has raised some money for his father, but Clooney is far from a slick Schwarzenegger type. Sure, he can work a room and knows how to turn on the charm — but isn't that the very definition of a modern-day politician?

As someone with a well-known name and a lifetime of being in the spotlight, Clooney should be able to raise Northern Kentucky's profile in Congress — which is long overdue.

Issue 4 (Eliminate Cincinnati Property Tax): No
This is an effort to change the Cincinnati city charter to phase out the city property tax, capping it at 4.5 mills next year and decreasing it by 0.5 mill every year thereafter until it reaches zero in 2014. From that year forward, the city would collect no property tax.

Cincinnati levies property tax within city limits on top of what Hamilton County already charges and each year sets what the tax will be based on budget needs. The amount a city property owner pays to Cincinnati is about 7.5 percent of his or her total property tax bill. The tax will generate an estimated $29 million in 2004, about 10 percent of the city's general fund revenues.

Considering that the city is already facing severe budget deficits, cutting out 10 percent of its revenue will do nothing but plunge the city into chaos. But maybe that's what Issue 4 proponents have in mind.

Mayor Charlie Luken is telling city council that the 2005 he's preparing — with existing property tax rates — will feature layoffs and elimination of funding for various festivals and community organizations. A loss of 10 percent of total revenue can only mean further cuts into the meat of Cincinnati's budget: police, fire, recreation and parks.

Issue 32 (Cincinnati Public Schools Renewal Levy): Yes
This is a five-year renewal levy that replaces an expiring one at the same rate, 10.14 mills, which translates into $298.66 per year for the owner of a $100,000 house. It would generate about $13 million per year for ongoing Cincinnati Public Schools operations; this and other tax levies provide about 55 percent of CPS' budgeted income.

Thanks in part to CPS' ability to pass operating levies — voters first approved this one in 1980 and have passed it each time since — the district has a high bond rating on the financial markets, meaning the money it's borrowing to finance the ongoing $1 billion rebuilding project is paid back at lower interest rates, ultimately saving taxpayers money. CPS officials estimate their building project will save about $30 million in interest over the life of the loans due to the district's AA bond rating. So passing this renewal helps save money.

And if this levy fails and is reintroduced to voters next spring, as Issue 32 opponents would like, CPS would have to pay upwards of $300,000 to conduct a special election in addition to the costs of running another campaign. Thus passing this renewal saves even more money.

Issue 32 opponents point to CPS' current $21 million-plus budget overrun as a reason to cut off tax revenues, with the idea that district leaders will be forced to get their house in order. The reality is that half of the deficit comes from underestimating enrollment in area charter schools, which jumped 26 percent this year.

By law, CPS pays three-fourths of the cost of tuition for local children to attend charter schools, while the state pays just one-fourth. CPS also has to pay for all transportation costs for those students to and from charter schools. Yes, CPS (and all public school districts in Ohio) pays students not to go to its schools — CPS paid about $40 million in fiscal year 2004 for local kids in charter schools. You can thank your Republican friends in Columbus for that excellent idea.

Despite these circumstances, CPS has raised test scores seven consecutive years and moved out of "academic emergency" status — which is what tax levy opponents consistently cite as their No. 1 guideline for CPS to prove its worthiness before voters. Now opponents say that's not good enough.

We think it's at least good enough to merit the renewal of a longstanding operations levy with no tax increase.

Issue 43 (Drake Renewal Levy): Yes

Issue 44 (Mental Retardation/ Developmentally Disabled Renewal Levy): Yes
Issue 43 is a five-year levy that helps fund the operating budget of Drake Center Inc. and funds several Hamilton County Drug Court rehabilitation programs. Drake provides specialized physical rehab programs as well as long-term nursing care without regard to county residents' ability to pay. This levy would replace an expiring one but at a much lower rate, 0.84 mill, which translates into $24.74 per year for the owner of a $100,000 house.

Issue 44 is a five-year levy that helps fund the county's Mentally Retarded/ Developmentally Disabled (MRDD) programs, which are mandated by the state. This levy would replace an expiring one but at a slightly higher rate, 3.62 mills, which translates into $106.62 per year for the owner of a $100,000 house.

So you have two tax levies for worthwhile causes that were approved by the county's Tax Levy Review Committee after being whittled down from the original requests. The Drake levy would generate approximately $16 million a year, while the MRDD levy would generate almost $68 million a year.

Yet it's the smaller levy that has vocal opposition. Drake is a private, nonprofit facility whose services could be provided by other hospitals that aren't taxpayer supported, opponents say. And only 74 percent of Drake's patients are Hamilton County residents, meaning some taxpayer funds go to treat non-county residents.

This levy campaign has all the earmarks of the controversial Cincinnati Zoo levy a few years ago, when it became obvious that zoo officials intermingled taxpayer funds with all other revenue to pay for everything from questionable salaries to pro-levy marketing. And we all know what happened back then — the zoo levy lost for the first time ever.

The animals are nice, but a zoo hardly constitutes life and death support in the same way as Drake and MRDD. It borders on reckless to try to make a point about financial restraint while denying funds to worthy causes.

But make no mistake: A storm is brewing in Hamilton County over property tax levies. The county auditor's office reports that the nine voted and one unvoted (general operating fund) tax levies generated a total of $228 million in 1999 and $270 million in 2003 — a whopping 18.5 percent increase. An 11th levy was passed in March to fund maintenance and repair at Union Terminal.

An increasing tax burden on a decreasing county population equals trouble in River City. All of this has occurred under Republican Party domination of practically every aspect of county government, yet Republicans continue to insist they believe in smaller government. The out-of-control spending and resulting lies are yet another bonus of one-party rule in Hamilton County.

But until voters correct the GOP dominance here, we have little choice but to approve tax levies to protect our fellow citizens. Some would have you believe we should bail out of supporting the children, the paralyzed and the mentally retarded — Issues 32, 43 and 44 — but that's not how to fix budget crises.

ENDORSEMENTS written by John Fox. ENDORSEMENT CHARTS researched and prepared by Stephanie Dunlap.