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For a little while now, I've been feeling that the city of Cincinnati is breaking out of a decade-long dark period and slowly emerging. I'm not quite sure exactly where we're going, but it's a better place than where we've been.
I trace the darkness back to 1996 and the sales tax plan to build two new stadiums. The local Republican Party and corporate community, at the height of their power, forced voters to swallow an inequitable tax that led to out-of-control public financing of the stadiums.
Public backlash over the years has had far-reaching implications: lack of faith in the part of the stadium plan that was supposed to most benefit the public, The Banks; lack of trust that large tax levies would be administered competently by public officials; and lack of guts by elected officials to pursue other large-scale development or improvement ideas.
The three largest public institutions on the Ohio side of the river — Hamilton County, the city of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Public Schools — are struggling with huge budget deficits. Is it a total breakdown of financial controls? Is every local government official a fool? Have so many people moved out to the suburbs that the budget numbers just don't add up anymore?
Clearly the area hasn't passed the tipping point or gone over the cliff, but it must finally be evident to everyone that the old solutions and the old way of determining solutions aren't working.
Working around the edges, public officials have been making some difference in recent years. The collaborative agreement has improved the Cincinnati Police Department and strengthened ties with the community. Fountain Square rehabilitation has spurred development within several blocks. High-profile support of equal rights for gays and lesbians helped overturn the odious Article 12.
The Republicans who pushed the stadium sales tax are mostly gone now, and Democrats control the Hamilton County Commission for the first time in 40 years. The corporate community, of course, continues to wield influence — though its leaders declined to support the Cincinnati Public Schools tax levy, an unusual disappearing act.
Several large, nagging issues are close to being resolved. The long-simmering debate over whether to build a new Hamilton County jail will be decided Tuesday via Issue 27 — either the tax passes and a new jail and new programs are funded, or the tax fails, a new jail is off the table and a larger discussion about the county justice system begins.
The Banks project is close to moving forward, even as critical funding and design details remain up in the air. And city officials seem determined to make a bold statement with their streetcar plan for downtown and Over-the-Rhine.
It's time to keep this momentum going with your votes Tuesday. CityBeat recommends that you elect four newcomers to Cincinnati City Council and three newcomers to Cincinnati School Board and help the city continue to emerge into the light.
On the Kentucky side, electing a new governor will be a solid step toward helping the state emerge from its recent scandals and focus on the work at hand.
Endorsements for Kentucky governor and the four major tax levies in Hamilton County were published in previous issues of CityBeat; I've recapped the endorsements below. Find the full text here and here.
Check out our always helpful "Who's Endorsing Whom" charts, which collect all of the media, political party, political action committee and special interest group endorsements in one place here. Check out which candidates and issues have fairly wide support and which actually have very narrow support (or no support at all).
Read up on CityBeat's earlier news section coverage of the candidates and ballot issues here. You'll also find related coverage in this issue: interviews with all four Cincinnati School Board candidates here and a tongue-in-cheek critique of city council candidates' MySpace campaign sites here.
Once you've read up on things, considered CityBeat's endorsements and checked all of the other endorsements, you have one more duty to perform: Vote on Tuesday.
Cincinnati City Council
Chris Bortz: After just one term on council he's driven key issues such as the downtown streetcar plan, infrastructure improvements, attracting and retaining young professionals and initiatives to make Cincinnati a "green" city. As chair of the Economic Development Committee, Bortz has a lot of pressure on him to create a viable Banks project and help neighborhoods grow and thrive alongside downtown and Over-the-Rhine.
Laketa Cole: Known for her work with neighborhoods, Cole helped establish annual budget help for the city's 34 neighborhood business districts and often hosts her Neighborhoods, Environment and Public Services Committee meetings in neighborhood locations. She's among the leaders on council to push for "green" building development through city tax abatements and to push for consolidating and coordinating the city's housing services.
John Cranley: Running for his fourth and final council term, Cranley has become a popular city leader (top vote-getter in 2005), an advocate for the West Side (particularly Price Hill) and something of an elder statesman (at age 33). He's been working to revamp the Metro bus system and has always taken pride in his arts support, environmental support and anti-crime initiatives such as bringing the CIRV anti-gang initiative to town.
David Crowley: For three terms on council, Crowley has been a good friend to the environment, the arts, public transit and equal rights for all citizens. His work re-establishing the city's Office of Environmental Quality and advocating for environmental justice in the city's poorer neighborhoods is particularly noteworthy. The patriarch of one of Cincinnati's most prestigious Irish barkeep families deserves a fourth and final council term.
John Eby: A West Side conservative, Eby's embrace of council's streetcar plan, "green" building incentives and a comprehensive approach to crime and public safety that goes beyond "more cops" shows how mainstream these progressive ideas have become in Cincinnati. In the current rush to "git er done" on The Banks, his larger view of literally and figuratively connecting the riverfront to the rest of downtown and striking a balance between downtown and neighborhood development would be welcome.
Brian Garry: In his second try for council, Garry has grown and "matured" over the years to develop a broad, well-thought-out approach to urban issues. Starting out as a true independent and now this year endorsed by the Democratic Party, he's remained aligned with his progressive ideals: a livable wage for all working people, small business development, better public transit, mixed income housing, inclusive green space development and a focus on youth education and involvement.
Greg Harris: Taking on hot button issues such as reforming the police department, helping poor neighborhoods and creating regional government, Harris hasn't succumbed to "10-second sound bite" campaign mode. He rightly suggests that blind faith in adding police officers to the force doesn't help reduce crime if root causes aren't also addressed and if the police/community relationship isn't continually worked on and improved. Harris will be a excellent addition to council.
Joan Kaup: The former tourism and downtown marketing executive has exactly the right feel for identifying and promoting Cincinnati's urban strengths, from attracting more downtown residents to celebrating our diverse population to using the city's incredible arts to lure more visitors and more development. Her campaign proposal to market and sell the city's expertise — she specifically focuses on selling city water to other communities — demonstrates that Kaup will be a leader for innovation on council.
Roxanne Qualls: Although she's served on council for barely three months after taking over for Jim Tarbell, Qualls has the name recognition and familiarity of a long-term incumbent. She was mayor from 1993 to 1999, leaving office due to council term limits (back then the mayor was a member of council) and pursuing policy and urban planning studies at Harvard University. She's been back in the Tristate since 2004, teaching at Northern Kentucky University, and is poised to apply her skills to city issues again.
Eve Bolton, Michael Flannery and Chris Nelms for Cincinnati Board of Education
Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) is an institution in flux, showing great improvement in many areas while also facing a $72 million deficit, searching for a new superintendent and asking voters for a new tax levy (see details below in the Issue 22 endorsement).
Three slots on its seven-seat board are up for election, with only one incumbent running: Rick Williams. If board member Melanie Bates wins her race for Cincinnati City Council, her seat would become available as well — meaning a majority of the school board could turn over completely on Nov. 6.
A lot of uncertainty, especially with three candidates running who have never served on a school board before. And especially when a potentially strong slate of former board members Anne Power and Sally Warner and former Cincinnati Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell failed in their last-minute bid to get on the ballot.
Just because the three school board challengers have no board experience, however, doesn't mean they have no relevant experience. Bolton has won a countywide political race before — as a Democrat, no less — serving as Hamilton County Recorder from 1993 to 1997. She's been a teacher for 35 years in Wyoming and served as president of that district's teachers union.
Nelms served for 25 years in the Cincinnati Public Schools system as a teacher, coach, athletic director and administrator. He currently works at Children's Hospital Medical Center and has five grandchildren in CPS schools.
Flannery's biggest positives come from his genuine love for children, both his own (in CPS) and the city's (via his impactful "Nine on Your Kids' Side" segments while working at WCPO Channel 9). After careers as a stand-up comedian and a TV personality, Flannery is ready to use his ability to connect with people to become a child advocate in the public school system.
Steve Beshear for Kentucky Governor
Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher recently started hammering on a possible ethics violation that Democratic challenger Steve Beshear might have committed 12 years ago while in private law practice, but it doesn't seem to be getting much traction. Voters appear to be more interested in Fletcher's own ethics violation just a few years ago.
Fletcher and others in his administration were issued a total of 14 indictments by a county grand jury for abusing the state's merit system of employment, which protects most state workers from being fired, demoted or transferred for political reasons — which is what Fletcher's people were accused of doing.
Fletcher eventually pardoned all of the accused in his administration except himself, then invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify in his case. No one was convicted or did jail time, but the governor officially took responsibility for the employment scandal in a settlement deal.
Polls indicate the top issues among Kentucky voters are job creation, casino gambling, health care and education, and Beshear has solid plans in hand to address three of them. On gambling, he thinks casinos could generate $500 million a year for the state, money that could help fund his plans for the other three areas — but he'd like for voters to have a crack at making the final decision on casinos, unlike Fletcher.
Kentucky voters seem to feel the same way. And they've seen enough of Fletcher.
Yes on Issue 22 (Cincinnati Public Schools Levy)
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.
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 impending retirement, a school board in flux and declining enrollment, 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.
It's that sort of chaos that brought us very close to endorsing a "no" vote on Issue 22. We were 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.
No on Issue 27 (Hamilton County Sales Tax for Public Safety Program)
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). Over 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, a non-secure facility in Walnut Hills 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.
Backed by Commissioners Todd Portune and David Pepper, the 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.
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.
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 design a fair and just justice system.
Yes on Issue 28 (Hamilton County Mental Health Services Levy)
This five-year levy renews the existing 2.74 mills and adds 0.25 mill for a total of 2.99 mills tax for every $1 valuation of your property. The owner of a $100,000 house will pay $43.86 per year for this tax, an increase of 20 percent over the current $36.46.
The tax will raise an estimated $37.4 million per year to fund the county's alcohol, drug addiction and mental health programs, including operation and maintainence of various treatment facilities. The funds are administered by the county's Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, a new organization formed from the merger of the Community Mental Health Board and the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board. County commissioners merged those two boards in 2006, reducing duplicate administrative costs by more than $600,000.
This tax levy provides a huge chunk of operating funds for these critical local services, and the local funding helps leverage and attract the other funding. And the county has done a good job streamlining administrative expenses.
Yes on Issue 29 (Hamilton County Senior Citizens Services Levy)
This five-year levy renews the existing 1.16 mills and adds 0.13 mill for a total of 1.29 mills tax for every $1 valuation of your property. The owner of a $100,000 house will pay $26.51 per year for this tax, an increase of 17 percent over the current $22.66.
The tax will raise an estimated $20.7 million per year to fund the county's system of home care for senior citizens. The funds are administered by the Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio, which runs the Elderly Services Program for the county.
The tax funds programs for about 8,000 seniors per year through 96 contracted agencies and organizations. The focus is on allowing seniors to continue living at home with as much independence as possible, with services ranging from personal care in the home, home-delivered meals and transportation to durable medical equipment and house repair.
We'd all like to think we'll be able to provide these services to parents and other loved ones when the need arises, though where that money will come from remains a little sketchy. As with the Mental Health Services Levy, there's a portion of the county's population that doesn't have the means to make any plans of that sort — and clearly the funds raised and spent on these senior services are well-managed.
WHO'S ENDORSING WHOM CHARTS researched and prepared by Kevin Osborne. POLLS IN OHIO are open 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Tuesday. POLLS IN KENTUCKY are open 6 a.m.-6 p.m.
A special thanks goes out to Stones Lanes for access to their lanes, balls and pins used in the cover photo.