A proposal by Mayor John Cranley to amend Cincinnati’s charter in order to raise funds for the city’s parks has created a good deal of controversy ahead of the Nov. 3 election, where voters will decide whether or not to adopt it.
Supporters of Issue 22, which would raise property taxes by about $35 for a $100,000 house, say it will help Cincinnati create “world class parks” and boost neighborhoods and economic development throughout the city. But detractors say the amendment gives too much control to the mayor and will allow him to take on debt the city will be paying for years to come, money that will be used to boost for-profit ventures in the city’s public parks.
The two sides battled it out at a public debate hosted by The Cincinnati Enquirer Oct. 12 at The Phoenix downtown. Cincinnati attorney Don Mooney argued against the amendment, while environmentalist Brewster Rhoads presented the case for it. Cranley himself was invited to participate in the event, but declined unless he would not be on the stage at the same time as the opposition and could speak last, according to the Enquirer.
At the debate, Mooney blasted Cranley’s proposal, calling it a “slush fund” for the mayor. He pointed to the ballot language, which gives control over the money raised to the mayor and the Cincinnati Park Board. The mayor appoints the park board with council approval.
Critics like Mooney have questioned why the amendment language doesn’t stipulate any requirements for Cincinnati City Council or community involvement.
That, Mooney says, primes Cincinnati for “a commercial and corporate takeover of our parks.” Mooney cites recent closures of Washington Park due to for-profit events as evidence of this, as well as a proposed public-private partnership with Western & Southern to remake Lytle Park downtown.
But Rhoads says the amendment is about boosting Cincinnati’s public parks. He says for-profit events like those at Washington Park are rare events that put much-needed funds in the city’s coffers for parks.
At the debate, Rhoads also pushed back against the assertion that the mayor will control the funds raised by the amendment. Ohio law requires City Council to approve any bonds issued by the city, he said, giving the elected body a say over which projects will be funded by the amendment.
Rhoads did acknowledge that the amendment’s language would be better if it had specific guidelines for community involvement.“It’s not a perfect plan,” he said. “But we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
The mayor has proposed 16 projects to be funded by bonds issued with seed money from the property tax increase, though none are specifically listed in the amendment language. Among these are an effort to save and restore the former King Records site in Evanston and create a museum there; millions in funding for the Wasson Way bike path, which would cut through a number of East Side neighborhoods on its way into Uptown; and money to revamp Burnet Woods and Mount Airy Forest.
Rhoads argued that the city doesn’t have enough money to fund park maintenance currently. He and other supporters say 25 percent of the money raised by the property tax levy will go toward maintenance costs. Critics, however, point out that the language on the ballot only stipulates that the 25 percent cannot be used toward debt service for capital projects, not a requirement for it to be used for maintenance.
Mooney questioned how the city doesn’t have enough money for park maintenance when the Park Board has millions in its accounts and was able to spend $200,000 to fund a pro-Issue 22 ad featuring Cranley. Rhoads deflected that question, saying he doesn’t speak for the Issue 22 campaign.
In an Oct. 13 letter to Parks Director Willie Carden, members of anti-Issue 22 group Save Our Parks called the campaign contribution “illegal” and demanded the money be taken back.