News: Not the Bengals, Stupid

More than the stadium controversy fuels the county-commission race

Jymi Bolden

Todd Portune (left) and Bob Bedinghaus at a recent debate

Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus is about to take off the gloves in his re-election bid.

Behind by about 20 percentage points in WCPO-TV polls and apparently surprised by the staying power of the stadium issue, Bedinghaus is set to appeal to conservative voters via TV commercials highlighting his differences with Democratic challenger Todd Portune, especially on abortion and gay rights.

Bedinghaus is under pressure to keep up the Republican domination of the county commission: No Democrat has won a seat in 36 years.

The question is, can Bedinghaus afford enough TV time to cover all of their differences? Both candidates agree the Interstate 71 light-rail proposal needs rethinking and the Greater Cincinnati Convention Center needs to be expanded. But that's almost everything they agree on.

Meanwhile, Libertarian Paul Naberhaus, the unknown variable in the race, is painting both Portune and Bedinghaus as friends of big government. But Naberhaus campaign signs take a special jab at the incumbent commissioner by directing voters to choose "Naberhaus, not Bedinghaus."

The stadium saga

Stadiums and riverfront development are easily the hottest issue in this race, giving Democrats their best chance at a seat on the county commission in decades.

Bengals owner Mike Brown, whose franchise income was not keeping up with other NFL teams in the early 1990s, sued to get out of the team's 30-year stadium lease, signed in 1970, and then began talking with other cities about relocating.

In 1993 the city settled Brown's lawsuit, accepting an August 2000 deadline to open a new stadium. A regional stadium task force, created to look for funding from several Tri-state counties, failed to receive regional support. Realizing it didn't have the money to build the stadiums alone, in 1995 the city turned over the project to the county.

In what is now a mythic story, Bedinghaus sat at his kitchen table and drew up a one-cent sales-tax increase to raise enough money for the $540 million cost of two new stadiums, plus a new jail and a property-tax rollback, among other items.

The county commission approved the tax, but a petition drive led to a referendum on the issue.

In March 1996, with a bipartisan coalition of city and county leaders backing the plan, voters approved a scaled-back, half-cent sales-tax hike that included a property-tax rollback and provides more than $7 million each year for Cincinnati Public Schools.

The city, unhappy with the central riverfront site the county negotiated with Brown, withheld 10 riverfront acres until he agreed to move the stadium to the western riverfront. The dispute delayed construction by eight months.

Under pressure to finish the stadium by August, the county approved a series of change orders, increasing the Bengals stadium's cost by at least $45 million. Because the changes were approved in closed meetings, the public did not learn of the additional costs until February.

Closed meetings, higher costs

Bedinghaus began his political career as a clerk with Delhi Township 13 years ago, and in 1993 was appointed director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections. Five years ago, he was appointed to the county commission to take Steve Chabot's place, winning re-election in 1996 after the passage of the sales-tax increase.

During the past four years, the county commissioners oversaw welfare reform that shrank enrollment by about 27,000 people, which Bedinghaus estimates has saved taxpayers more than $74 million. He fought for better child-care for working mothers and backed the elimination of 300 jobs from the Human Services Department.

While Portune characterizes city-county relations as "fractured," Bedinghaus says it's not always that way.

"There's an awful lot of cooperation that goes on behind the scenes," Bedinghaus says.

For example, the county, city and Clermont County cooperated to combine their workforce-development programs. Bedinghaus also says he gets along well with Mayor Charlie Luken, a Democrat.

Even Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes — a frequent Bedinghaus critic who also cut his political teeth in Delhi Township — says they get along "reasonably well."

But the two have clashed over whether or not Rhodes should audit the stadium finances.

"Nobody's doing audits in county government," Rhodes says.

Bedinghaus says state law mandates the Ohio Auditor of State audit county finances. But according to Kim Norris, spokesman for the state auditor, that mandate only includes making sure money is spent in accordance with state and county laws and policies — not whether the spending is appropriate. That's a local decision.

"It's not the statutory role of the county auditor," Bedinghaus says. "It's convenient to suggest that he should be the watchdog of county government."

Bedinghaus' response is a dodge, according to Portune.

"That's just an excuse offered by my opponent for his failure," Portune says.

In the mid-1990s, Bedinghaus and others talked about creating a stadium authority to manage the projects' construction and finances. But that didn't happen, he says, because the other county commissioners didn't support it. Now Bedinghaus says an additional layer of independent review during construction would not have saved any money.

And what about the $540 million estimate for both stadiums? Looking back, was that realistic?

Bedinghaus says that figure came from the stadium task force, and he had no reason to doubt it.

"We were playing the best hand we were dealt, more than anything else in that situation," he says.

Bedinghaus doesn't have a good record of involving the public in the county's decision-making. He cites the referendums supporting the sales tax and riverfront baseball stadium as evidence his stances were right. But in both cases, opponents gathered tens of thousands of signatures to force public votes. Would the public have been adequately involved without those referendums? Bedinghaus says no one anticipated the amount of public interest in the riverfront projects, and public discussion would have been enough participation.

But in the case of Broadway Commons, the referendum wasn't confined to the Reds stadium location; Bedinghaus and other supporters of the riverfront site clouded the issue with dire warnings that a yes vote — by creating a charter form of government as a byproduct of limiting the stadium to Broadway Commons — might threaten the suburbs' home rule.

Bedinghaus downplays the influence of the charter issue, saying more than 60 percent of voters picked the riverfront site, so having a simpler referendum wouldn't have changed the outcome.

"I think, very clearly, people were voting for the riverfront," he says.

Last summer Bedinghaus ran a commercial admitting he made mistakes but not specifying them. When asked, he says the main mistake was failing to negotiate a better stadium deal with the Bengals.

The other guy in the race

Paul Naberhaus has never before run for office. He says he feels obligated to take a shot at the county commission not only because of the riverfront projects, but also because of other potential spending, including infrastructure for the proposed 2012 Olympics, light rail and commuter rail, sewer and water expansion in western Hamilton County, and the convention-center expansion. That adds up to $9 billion, by his estimate.

Naberhaus says he doesn't know whom those projects are supposed to benefit; maybe it's for the Fourth Street gang, a term he uses for Cincinnati's big businesses.

"But it's certainly not for the benefit of taxpayers," he says.

Taxes are at the center of Naberhaus' campaign. In 1980, Naberhaus, who owns a home in Hyde Park, paid $800 a year in taxes. Now he says he pays $8,000 a year.

Naberhaus doesn't see sprawl as a problem, questions the effort to concentrate business and development downtown and opposes a light-rail line from Covington to Blue Ash.

"I just think you shouldn't try to force people out of their cars," he says.

But Naberhaus would force people out of buses; he says he would shut down Queen City Metro in favor of a point-to-point taxilike transit system, modeled on the computer-directed fleet used by a local courier.

"Giving a monopoly to Metro is a mistake," he says. "If I could, I'd scrap Metro in a heartbeat."

Naberhaus' first priority is to get the county out of the Paul Brown Stadium lease and give the stadium to Mike Brown so he can maintain and rent it out. He would also turn over the riverfront land to Brown or someone else with the resources to develop it.

If government gets out of the way of private individuals, they will do the work, he says.

"There was no plan for Mount Adams whatsoever. It just happened," Naberhaus says.

The same thing will happen in Over-the-Rhine if the city and other organizations get out of the way, according to Naberhaus.

Is the city's record better?

Portune, appointed to Cincinnati City Council to finish David Mann's term, has won re-election four times. While on council he has steadily supported campaign-finance reform, equal rights for gays and lesbians and quotas for minority contracts, including one the state courts overruled.

Although the city is working on setting minority-participation standards for The Banks, a proposed riverfront neighborhood, Portune is confident the new standards will withstand legal scrutiny.

Portune championed the Broadway Commons baseball stadium site, at one point proposing a $20 million package of tax breaks, street improvements and other items to encourage the Reds to locate there. But Portune says he backed away from the campaign during the final weeks because of disagreements on how to run the campaign.

While much attention has been paid to the stadium cost overruns, Bedinghaus says no one is talking about the expansion of the city's Fort Washington Way project, which doubled in cost since it began.

Portune said there's no comparison between the projects, because a transit center, more highway ramps and other items increased Fort Washington Way's cost — not stadium-style change orders on the same work.

"The original channel project is on budget," Portune says.

What's more, the city's changes were debated and approved in public.

What about the city's settlement with Mike Brown in 1993, in which the city agreed to work on a new stadium? Couldn't the city have been tougher?

"If we hadn't settled that lawsuit in 1993, (Brown) was gone in 1993," Portune says. "What we did is bought the community seven years to see if we could work it out with the Bengals."

Portune believes light rail should be put on hold until one of his key goals is realized: establishing commuter rail service from Lawrenceburg to Milford using regular trains and existing tracks. After Metro rethinks its routes via the Metromoves planning project, then light rail should enter the picture, Portune says.

Stay tuned for the attack

Cincinnati lost about 33,000 residents in the 1990s, or about 9 percent of its population, according to early U.S. Census estimates.

While Bedinghaus acknowledges Cincinnati Public Schools are improving, he says they've been a major reason why families leave the city. Portune says the city needs to provide new housing opportunities and put less blame on the schools for the population decline.

Bedinghaus sees the Western Hamilton County Collaborative Plan as a way to keep sprawl in check. Without the plan, the western county would see 25 percent growth, while the plan would limit it to 17 percent, Bedinghaus says.

Portune has criticized the plan for encouraging sprawl and serving developers' interests instead of the interests of citizens.

While Bedinghaus believes the city is responsible for developing and maintaining the quality of its neighborhoods, Portune believes the county needs to do more with housing, especially creating affordable housing, much of which is concentrated in the city.

Bedinghaus, who lives minutes from the Ohio River in Delhi Township, sees an immediate need for a new Ohio River bridge in western Hamilton County, saying the ferry is inconvenient. Portune, however, says an $800,000 bridge study by the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments is a waste.

"Well, Kentucky says they're not going to build a bridge, so why spend $800,000 on something that's not going happen?" Portune says.

Although Bedinghaus clearly has more high-profile political baggage than Portune, he seems to believe his worries will end after voters watch his latest campaign commercials.

"I say that he's out of touch with the voters of Hamilton County," Bedinghaus says. "I'm very comfortable running on my record, including riverfront development." ©

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