Qualls, Cranley Face Off in First Post-Primary Mayoral Debate

Candidates agree on much, disagree on streetcar and parking lease

Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and ex-Councilman John Cranley today channeled much of their disagreement on the

streetcar project

and

parking lease

when they met for the first post-primary mayoral debate.

For both the candidates, the issues are about where they want to see the city going. Cranley says the city government lacks transparency and openness as it prioritizes controversial ideas to support downtown over Cincinnati’s neighborhoods. Qualls says the investments are continuing Cincinnati’s nationally recognized momentum and bringing growth to both downtown and the neighborhoods.

Whether the subject was the Metro bus system or bringing more flights to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Cranley repeatedly referenced his opposition to the streetcar project and his belief that it is siphoning city funds away from more important projects and forcing the city to raise property taxes to pay for debt.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees,” Cranley said. “We have to re-prioritize.”

Qualls argued the streetcar project will produce economic growth and grow the city’s tax base, which the city could then leverage for more development projects. That claim has been backed by studies from consulting firm HDR and the University of Cincinnati, which put the streetcar’s return on investment at three-to-one.

Cranley argued

Hop On Cincinnati

, a trackless trolley system, is a better option. He said the project would cost considerably less and come with more flexibility since it wouldn’t run on set tracks.

But in a 2007 letter citing swathes of data from cities around the nation, Charlie Hales, now mayor of Portland, Ore., found trackless trolleys consistently underperformed rail projects in terms of economic development and ridership.

At this point, cancelling the streetcar project would also carry its own costs. As of May, city officials estimated they had already spent $20 million on the project and cancelling it would cost another $45 million in federal funding and $14 million in close-out costs.

But expanding the streetcar project into a second phase, as Qualls advocated, would also carry its own set of unknown costs.

On other issues, Qualls touted the city’s plans to lease its parking assets to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority as a potential avenue for economic development.

Qualls and the current city administration originally supported leveraging the city’s parking meters, lots and garages through the lease to pay for budget gaps and economic development projects. But as the city managed to balance its budget without the lease, the focus has moved toward using the lump-sum and annual payments from the lease to only pay for more development projects.

Cranley claimed, as he long has, that the deal will have a negative impact on a generation by shifting control of the city’s parking assets from the local government to the unelected Port Authority and private companies. He also criticized Qualls and the city administration for

withholding a memo that criticized the lease’s financial details

and hastily pursuing the lease with limited public input.

Cranley also implied that the deal will actually lower long-term revenues by capping the city’s parking revenues at $3 million a year.

“It’s almost hard to respond to such misinformation, quite frankly,” Qualls responded.

On top of an estimated $92 million lump sum, the city projects that annual payments will start at $3 million a year but eventually grow much larger. Qualls claimed the yearly installments would reach $20 million by the end of the 30-year lease.

Qualls also took issue with Cranley’s assertion that the Port Authority is withholding contract documents for the private companies it will hire to operate Cincinnati’s parking assets. She reminded Cranley that Port board members explicitly told him at a public meeting that those documents will be made public two weeks before they’re signed.

The candidates also sparred on a number of issues typical of political campaigns: government transparency, negative campaign ads and rhetoric vs. facts.

But the debate also highlighted the large amount of agreement between Qualls and Cranley. Both agree the city shouldn’t increase the earnings tax. Both claim Cincinnati needs to structurally balance its budget and stop using one-time sources for budget fixes. Both echoed the need to leverage federal support for

the Brent Spence Bridge project

. Both criticized the state for refusing to grant tax credits to Pure Romance, a local company that is now considering moving to Covington, Ky., because of the state’s refusal.

Cranley and Qualls

got the most votes in the Sept. 10 mayoral primary

, allowing both to advance to the general election. Cranley received 55.9 percent of the vote, while Qualls obtained 37.2 percent. Their opponents each failed to break 5 percent.

Voter turnout for the mayoral primary was only 5.68 percent. That was lower than the 15-percent turnout for the mayoral primary held on Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the 21-percent turnout for the 2005 mayoral primary.

In the past two mayoral races with primaries, the primary winner went on to lose the general election.

Voters will get to decide between Qualls and Cranley, along with City Council candidates and other ballot issues, on Nov. 5.

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