News: Fishing for Help

Voters reject jail tax, support care for kids and the poor

Matt Borgerding

Opponents of Issue 12, the Hamilton County sales tax proposal to build a new jail, gather at the Clifton house of Dan La Botz (third from right) to discuss the community's next moves as Issue 12 goes down to defeat.

Sunday morning after church, a self-titled conservative said he'd rather teach people to fish than give them a fish. His wife agreed but added that she thought the priest made a valid point when he spoke about having compassion.

"But can't we give them a fishing pole and teach them how to fish?" she asked.

A group of activists organized into the No Jail Tax Political Action Committee (PAC) worked to defeat the Issue 12 sales tax because they believe the way to approach the problem of crime is prevention. Identifying and treating the real issues such as joblessness, mental illness and drug addiction is the only way to make meaningful progress in reducing crime, according to the PAC.

The defeat of Issue 12, the tax that was billed as funding for a new jail, was actually a supplement to the general fund with no specific language earmarking the money for construction costs.

The mantra of "We can't arrest our way out of this problem" resonated with 21,933 voters (56.5 percent) who said no to the jail tax, compared to the 16,887 who voted yes (43.5 percent). The bricks-and-mortar approach seemed to miss the mark.

"We're concerned that it doesn't address the real problems," Suhith Wickrema said on Election Night.

As one of almost a dozen jail tax opponents who gathered in Clifton at the home of activist Dan La Botz, Wickrema shared his thoughts with a tone of dismay in his voice.

La Botz agreed in words and spirit.

"We're warehousing people," La Botz said. "We're writing them off as not salvageable."

The No Jail Tax group filed a complaint with the Hamilton County Board of Elections just last week requesting that the initiative be removed from the ballot because they claimed voters were being deceived (see Porkopolis, issue of Nov. 1). Another group that opposed the levy, the Baptist Ministers of Greater Cincinnati and Vicinity, agreed with the spirit of the complaint.

The group's president, the Rev. James Pankey, said his group would have been willing to support the tax if an adequate amount of funding were set aside for staff training in a preventive approach, mental health services, drug rehabilitation and other support services. He believes this lack of attention to prevention is what defeated the levy.

"People in general are beginning to see that just building jails and locking people up is not going to solve the problem," Pankey said late on Nov. 7. "It's about prevention. You lock a person up — lock up, say, 1,000 people in Cincinnati — before you get them through the court system, you've got people replacing them on the corner they just left."

Voters appeared to look at more than just the mills of a levy and the cost they would incur because, when given the option to strike down two existing levies, Issues 13 and 14 — the Indigent Care Levy and Children's Services Levy, respectively — both were overwhelmingly approved with more than 60 percent support.

The renewal of the Children's Services Levy garnered 25,931 votes (66.4-33.5 percent approval). The renewal will effectively serve as a cut, given that costs continue to rise while tax revenues flowing to the programs will remain stagnant (see "Numbers Game," issue of Oct. 10). But the $41.8 million raised each year over the next five years will continue to allow Hamilton County to provide essential services to some of the most vulnerable citizens in the community.

The same is true of the Indigent Care Levy, which passed with 25,605 votes (65.4-34.5 percent approval). While this tax levy was billed as a partial renewal and a reduction, it will continue to provide money to pay for some of the hospital care given to those who can't afford to pay. How the rest of the money will be made up is something the recipients of the fund, the University of Cincinnati and Children's hospitals, have yet to determine.

Whether or not these results indicate a desire to teach people to fish and supply them with poles and lessons will be decided in the weeks and months to come. ©

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