Signs supporting the Hamilton County Park Levy are popping up all over town like dandelions, but some Cincinnati leaders are trying to weed out the tax.
The Hamilton County Park District is asking voters to pass a 1.0-mill replacement levy Tuesday. The 15-year property tax is an increase of more than 74 percent. For the owner of a $100,000 home, the existing park levy costs $16.85 a year. The new rate would be $29.42 a year, according to the park district.
Fair Share for Cincinnati Parks, a group opposing the levy, says the city parks deserve a portion of the county park tax, or at least a commitment to use some of the money nearer the city's center. The Hamilton County Democratic Party and Mayor Charlie Luken also oppose the levy.
City wants a share
The proposed levy would raise $18 million per year. In 1988 voters approved a 1.0-mill levy, still in effect, to raise about $12 million per year. The proposed levy would replace the current tax.
The county park district used the proceeds to buy more than 4,000 acres and maintain its existing parks, which total more than 13,000 acres.
The county park district — which is not part of county government — formed in 1930 with the help of Cincinnati Mayor Murray Seasongood, who foresaw the need to preserve non-urban land in a natural state. Three commissioners, appointed by a Hamilton County probate judge for three-year terms, govern the park district.
Both supporters and opponents of the tax levy believe the county parks are well run and need additional funds. Their disagreement is over spending and priorities.
Fair Share argues the nine major county parks, mostly clustered along Interstate 275, are difficult for city residents to reach, especially poorer residents; and the park district hasn't helped projects inside the city.
"This is a levy for county parks, and not city of Cincinnati Parks, and we want the public to know that," says Marvin Kraus, attorney for Fair Share.
City taxpayers account for 31 percent of the park levy proceeds, according to Fair Share. That means city residents will pay about $75 million under the 15-year levy. Fair Share wants some sort of commitment that those funds will help the city's parks, or at least parks inside the city.
"They want us to support a levy with no specific purpose, and given the last 13 years, I find that difficult to do," says Roger Ach II, a Cincinnati Parks commissioner.
Fair Share members asked the county park board to guarantee some of the levy money would return to Cincinnati.
"And the county parks people refused to give any commitment," Kraus says.
But the county parks already serve the entire county, according to James Rahtz, communications director for the county park district.
"City of Cincinnati residents are county residents," he says. "City of Cincinnati residents do use our parks."
Since 1988 between 50 and 60 percent of Cincinnati residents have said they've used a county park in the past year, according to telephone surveys by the University of Cincinnati Institute for Policy Research. More than 1,000 students from Cincinnati Public Schools camp at Winton Woods each summer as part of a county nature education program.
That's good, but it's not enough, says Tim Burke, co-chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and a former member of the Cincinnati Park Board.
"It's a drop in the bucket compared to the financial resources they have," Burke says.
The Cincinnati Park District has been under pressure to trim its budgets for more than a decade. The division once employed 250 people, but now has only 70 workers during the peak of summer to maintain 5,000 acres, 60 percent of which is in a natural state, according to Cincinnati Parks Director Willie Carden Jr.
City council is talking about cutting city departments 10 percent this year. This follows a $250,000 cut in the parks budget last year, which reduced its budget to $4.7 million annually.
Carden says he's already unable to maintain the city parks as well as he'd like, even with some employees working for free at times.
"I think the citizens are saying, 'Boy, it would be nice to give them some money and see what they can do,' " Carden says.
Fairness cuts both ways
But if the county park district gave a certain percentage of funding to the city, wouldn't it have to do the same for the 53 other municipalities in the county? Fair Share supporters say the city's parks need help more than others.
"It should go where it's needed," Ach says.
The heart of the dispute is the long-term relationship between city and county parks officials. Both say the other side hasn't been willing to work out deals for joint projects, most notably on Armleder Park, formerly called Little Miami River Scenic Park.
"They always indicate an interest in doing these things," Ach says. "It always seems to be unfulfilled."
Rahtz says the county district negotiated on Armleder in 1997 with the city parks division, but the city didn't respond to an offer. The two sides have similarly conflicting accounts of negotiations involving Fernbank Park and French Park.
County Commissioner Todd Portune says the county park board seems committed to helping the city with a few projects, including the 52-acre riverfront park to be built as part of The Banks redevelopment. Carden agrees; he credits new Park District Commissioner James Bushman.
Cincinnati and the other political bodies in the county have their own revenue sources to pay for parks. But suburban residents who work in Cincinnati have been complaining about their own fair share issue for years.
Cincinnati collects a 2.1 percent income tax from everyone who works in the city, including non-residents. People who pay city taxes might never use city parks. Is it fair for city parks supporters to complain about unequal taxation?
"We think so," Kraus says.
City parks, unlike county parks, are used by everyone, according to Burke.
"It's hard to imagine county residents who don't directly benefit from city of Cincinnati parks," he says.
Portune says Fair Share's position is a step away from regionalism and toward "balkanizing" the Tristate.
"I reject the way of thinking that's seeming to take hold here," he says. "The city is going to find itself in a very weak position if that way of thinking holds true."
The Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce endorsed the park levy April 27.
Longtime civil rights activist Don Spencer chairs the Fair Share campaign, whose supporters include former Cincinnati City Councilman Tyrone Yates, former U.S. Appeals Judge Nathaniel Jones and community councils in Avondale, Bond Hill, Corryville and Roselawn. ©