Hamilton County Commissioners voted today to axe Music Hall from a proposed sales tax increase designed to pay for renovations to that structure and Union Terminal. Now, only Union Terminal will benefit from the potential tax hike, which county voters will decide on in November. Voters won't get a chance to decide whether a similar hike will pay for Music Hall.
Mayor John Cranley and Cincinnati City Council are not happy about the change-up.
“As mayor of this city, I’m deeply offended when we’re treated as second-class citizens in our own county,” Cranley said during a vote approving the city’s contribution to renovations at today’s council meeting. “We have done our part. We will pay the tax if it is passed. In no other jurisdiction, not even Hamilton County, is being asked to cut its budget … for these institutions.”
Cranley said asking city taxpayers for more money represents a kind of double taxation, since they would also be paying the county sales tax increase.
Ostensibly, council was voting to approve annual payments toward upkeep of both Union Terminal and Music Hall for 25 years. The $200,000 yearly commitment to each building adds up to $10 million. Cranley floated the plan last week as a demonstration of the city’s commitment to the landmark buildings.
Council approved that money unanimously, but that vote is mostly symbolic now that the fragile plan to fund both renovations with a tax hike, first proposed by a cadre of area business leaders called the Cultural Facilities Task Force, has fallen through. Hamilton County Commissioners Greg Hartmann and Chris Monzel said the proposed contributions, which the city already makes, don’t represent a renewed effort to fix the buildings.
The city has also pledged another $10 million toward Music Hall repairs. Those contributions weren’t enough for Hartmann, who had been the swing vote on the three-member commission. He signaled he would not vote for the original 14-year, .25 percent sales tax increase designed to raise much of the $331 million needed to repair the buildings.
Instead, he voted with fellow Republican Monzel today for an alternate tax measure that left Music Hall out of the deal, raising $170 million over five years for renovations to Union Terminal only. Democrat Todd Portune, who supported the original plan, voted against the new deal.
Former P&G CEO Bob McDonald, who led the task force designing the original deal, said the new plan jeopardizes more than $40 million in private donations, as well as historic preservation tax credits.
"The idea that somehow there’s going to be more money falling from space or that this money will be put forward for an alternate plan is a fallacious assumption," McDonald told the Cincinnati Business Courier. "That money has been committed to us personally for this plan.”
Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld called the development “frustrating.”
“I’m not here to add gasoline to the fire, but I think logic is a fair expectation of our elected leaders, and after people have said repeatedly that plans haven’t been vetted, that questions haven’t been answered, they’ve now moved forward with something that has no vetting,” Sittenfeld said, referring to criticisms of the original plan by anti-tax groups like COAST. “I hope people don’t forget what happened eight blocks from City Hall anytime soon.”
Monzel said that the plan's details would be worked out in the coming weeks, and that he wants to keep the county from overextending itself.
“If we limit the scope and focus on the one building that we do have a history with and limit it to five years, we limit our exposure and can be able to handle some of these other issues down the road,” he said.
Council members said that the city has stepped up to take care of the buildings in the past.
“Going back through the real-estate records, it’s clear that time and time again the city has stepped forward,” said Councilman Kevin Flynn. He highlighted the city’s rescue of Union Terminal from a failed plan to turn it into a mall in the 1980s. The city bought the building from a developer after the plan crashed and burned. Flynn also said the city has made significant contributions to 136-year-old Music Hall's upkeep since the 1800s.