Hamilton County Sales Tax Fight a Proxy for Bigger Battles

A tax bump by Democrats on the Hamilton County Commission has triggered an all-out political war in a pivotal election year.

Jul 19, 2018 at 10:50 am

Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune - CityBeat file photo
CityBeat file photo
Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune

A small Hamilton County sales tax hike has turned into quite the complicated political tangle.

Anti-tax activists with the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, the Hamilton County GOP and other groups yesterday turned in about 38,000 signatures collected in an attempt to get a tax hike repeal effort on the November ballot. The groups need 23,629 of those signatures to be valid in order for that to happen.

The controversy started when Democrat Hamilton County Commissioners Todd Portune and Denise Driehaus voted to raise the county’s sales tax by .2 percent (a tiny fraction of 1 percent) to cover a $28 million budget deficit earlier this year.

Democrat commissioners say that deficit comes from deep cuts to the state’s local government fund passed by the state's conservative legislature. Hamilton County has lost more than $32 million since 2010 to those cuts. But conservatives say that the commission knew about that lost revenue long ago and needed to make cuts to the county's spending to deal with those realities.

Now, some local conservatives have taken that tax hike and run with it in a contentious and pivotal election year.

Republican Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel, who voted against the tax increase, is facing a challenge from Democrat former Lincoln Heights Village Manager Stephanie Summerow Dumas. And some at a news conference held after anti-tax groups filed the signatures yesterday held signs saying “Say no to Aftax,” a dig at Democrat congressional candidate Aftab Pureval. That was despite the fact that as Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, Pureval had nothing to do with the tax. He is, however, battling U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, a Republican, for his 1st District congressional seat. Some observers have suggested that local Republicans are fighting the tax increase so hard because the ballot initiative against it could boost conservative voter turnout in November.

Pureval has since come out against the tax hike — a move highlighting the complicated politics of the situation. A number of Republican county office holders, including  Hamilton County Recorder Norbert Nadel and Hamilton County Engineer Ted Hubbard, are against the repeal initiative, while other high-profile county Republicans are neutral.

""I oppose the sales tax," Pureval said in a statement. "When I got to the Clerk of Courts, I took a look at the budget and I found ways to cut waste and to make things more efficient.  As a result, we were able to pay our employees a living wage, offer them paid family leave, and we still saved taxpayers nearly a million dollars. I understand the county commissioners are in a difficult situation because the legislature in Columbus has cut local government funds and made it hard for county governments to operate. Still, I think the sales tax is wrong for the people of Hamilton County."

Commission President Portune has come out swinging against the efforts to repeal the tax, which brings Hamilton County’s sales tax rate to 7.2 percent until the Union Terminal renovation sales tax hike rolls off in 2020. That’s below Columbus’ 7.5 percent and Cleveland’s 8 percent sales tax rate. The boost will cost a household making $50,000 a year about $24 extra annually.

“Shameful how the Hamilton County GOP has kidnapped the People’s rights of initiative and referendum on the sales tax and risked the financial stability of the county just so they can try to bolster Steve Chabot in his campaign against County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval,” Portune tweeted yesterday shortly before mildly getting what the kids call “ratioed” by hecklers.