Should all Hamilton County property tax levies be on the ballot at the same time?

Jeff Cramerding, Executive Director of Charter Committee of Greater Cincinnati Instead of the current practice of spreading different county tax levies over multiple elections, the recent proposal

Nov 19, 2003 at 2:06 pm

Jeff Cramerding, Executive Director of Charter Committee of Greater Cincinnati

Instead of the current practice of spreading different county tax levies over multiple elections, the recent proposal by Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes and County Commissioner Phil Heimlich would place different levies on the same ballot on a common Election Day. According to Rhodes and Heimlich, voters would be able to go down the ballot like a shopping list, keeping the levies they like — "Let's keep the parks open!" — and scrapping the levies they don't like — "Who needs Meals on Wheels anyway?" There are several problems with this proposal.

First, placing all the levies on one ballot would be extremely confusing. It is already difficult enough for a levy campaign to communicate the rationale and value of an individual levy to the electorate. This task would become exponentially more difficult if the nearly two dozen levies were placed on the same ballot.

Neighborhood parades would grow longer as nearly a multitude of competing levies marshaled volunteers and adorned colorful floats vying for the voters' attention. Yard signs would litter front lawns and highway medians with competing slogans. TV and radio commercials would clutter the airwaves with differing messages.

It's even possible a levy could run negative ads against another levy. Picture the zoo using a talking walrus to convince voters that children's services aren't really necessary.

Secondly, many levies provide essential government services. To borrow the consolidation proponents' analogy of a grocery list, these levies provide for the milk and bread, not the beer and nachos. The county is mandated by state law to provide services such as mental health and child care. If several of these tax levies failed, the county would still have to provide these services. To make up for the failed levies, the county would have to borrow from the general fund. This could put Hamilton County in fiscal chaos.

The Rhodes-Heimlich consolidation plan would confuse the voters and place Hamilton County in fiscal peril. The proposal should be dropped.

Charles Tassell, President of Hamilton County Blue Chip Republicans

What amazes me is how many people still subscribe to the bogeyman! Many even substantiate the stories by adding their own — especially when it comes to the fears and threats made over such a simple task as letting voters determine which levies they will support at one election. Ohio Rep. Tom Brinkman's analogy struck to the heart of the matter by pointing out that the last time such extreme fear tactics had been used was during the suffrage movement. What's to fear? Let people vote.

The bipartisan consolidation proposal brought forward by Rhodes and Heimlich would allow voters to budget and prioritize for all the county levies at one time. The current process of ad hoc voting is similar to families reacting and spending without any long-term goals or plans. The danger is a hodgepodge of services that fail to meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens; with levies buoyed or sunk by the most recent (mis)deeds of other levy beneficiaries and is best exemplified by the sales tax levies: light rail after the stadium fiasco.

The deeper concern, though, is what these agencies have to fear from public scrutiny. Why would they turn into the very monsters they are supposed to be protecting our most vulnerable from, by exploiting them in an emotional plea for the status quo (as occurred at a recent public hearing)? I guess we're stuck with the political tool of prophesying about the bogeyman. But can we at least do it without shaming ourselves in exploiting the mentally and physically challenged — just to grow a bigger bureaucracy?

This issue is solid and, with Hamilton County tax rates the highest in the state, deserves serious consideration — not disgraceful exploitation, which is even compounded by the fact that the daily fish wraps don't even cover this institutional exploitation.

Dave Schaff, President of Hamilton County Young Democrats

Much has been made of the recent Rhodes-Heimlich proposal to place all of the special-purpose levies on the same ballot in 2008 as a means to curtail rising rates of property taxes.

This "smoke and mirrors" proposal has nice curb appeal but provides no guarantee of lowering property taxes that burden Hamilton County residents. Given the fact that the levies are currently undergoing an outside audit, are then reviewed by the Tax Levy Review Commission, the commissioners and then the voters, it is unlikely that we will get levies in 2008 seeking any less money than they are seeking individually.

To run a more efficient county government, Commissioner Todd Portune has suggested limiting all future spending on county-controlled items to levels at or below the rate of inflation, while working to secure alternate funding for all unfunded mandates.

One of Commissioner Portune's proposed budget goals is to remove from the property tax burden over $24 million of spending items annually that were moved by commissioners in the 1990s from the general fund over to the special levies. That practice by the Republican commissioners in the '90s resulted in unnecessarily high property taxes.

Taxpayers should really be asking why the assessed value of residential property, as determined by the county auditor, has increased by 87 percent — almost twice the rate of inflation since 1991. This increase has resulted in property taxes on the inside millage assessments — taxes that go to Hamilton County and its 49 jurisdictions — almost twice as high as they were just 12 short years ago.

I would also point out that further corrective tax measures should be directed at the Republican-led state legislature and governor, who have horribly managed our state government the past 10 years and now attempt to plug budget holes with gambling, cigarette and sales tax schemes.

Each month, CityBeat poses a question to young leaders in the local Democrat and Republican parties as well as a selected third party or independent activist.