Voters Have No Issues With Issues

Rail supporters beat back Issue 9, but petitioners win on Water Works

It was a split decision Nov. 3 for two voter referendums that were pushed by several groups collectively known as “We Demand A Vote.”

The much-debated Issue 9, which would have required a public vote on any rail-related spending by Cincinnati City Council, failed by a 56-44 percent margin. Its decisive outcome marks a significant defeat for We Demand A Vote, which placed the referendum on the ballot.

Still, the organization scored a victory on Issue 8, which it also backed. That ballot item was approved by a 61-39 percent margin. It mandates that a public vote be held before City Council ever agrees to sell the city-owned Water Works to a special water district.

Issue 9 dominated this fall’s election cycle, with heated debates and claims on both sides. Although the issue grew out of the concerns expressed by opponents of Cincinnati City Council’s proposal to build a streetcar line connecting downtown to uptown, it was drafted with broad wording that would affect every rail project passing through the city and requiring local money — ranging from a high-speed connector to Columbus and Cleveland to improvements to the Cincinnati Zoo’s train attraction.

Critics of Issue 9 said the extra bureaucratic hurdle would cause added time and expense, making it difficult to accept state and federal grants for rail projects and hampering any mass transportation improvements in the region.

We Demand A Vote includes the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). Attorney Chris Finney of COAST drafted the wording, and neither he nor NAACP President Christopher Smitherman publicly addressed the question of whether the wording was intentionally made so all-inclusive.

COAST, however, has a history of opposing public transit on philosophical grounds. Some political observers said COAST was using the NAACP to lobby for its broader agenda.

For about two years, City Council has been studying whether to build a streetcar system. The first phase, through downtown and Over-the-Rhine, is estimated to cost $128 million. A subsequent phase connecting the system to the University of Cincinnati and hospitals in uptown is estimated at an additional $57 million. Most of the money would come from federal grants and revenues generated by new real estate development along the route.

Streetcar supporters pointed to an initial feasibility study that concluded the project would have a $1.4 billion economic impact if built, due to the development it sparks. Cincinnati’s initial zig-zag loop would link Findlay Market to Great American Ball Park, with numerous stops along the way. Future segments have been suggested for other areas like Northern Kentucky.

The study indicated the system would trigger significant redevelopment of vacant and underused parcels within a two-block radius of the route. Annual operating costs were estimated at $2.3 million; about $1.1 million of that amount would come from fares.

Cincinnati’s line would be modeled after one in Portland, Ore. Since that city opened the nation’s first modern streetcar system in 2001, land development there has accelerated, mostly through the construction of apartments and condominiums.

Overall, $2.28 billion in new development has occurred within a two-block radius of Portland’s system, including more than 7,200 new housing units and 4.6 million square feet of new business space. About 55 percent of all new development in Portland’s downtown during the past decade has occurred within one block of the system.

Streetcar detractors believe the system is an imprudent investment during a time of budget deficits. Further, they said the money could be better used for smaller projects in various neighborhoods.

Even some streetcar opponents, however, disliked Issue 9, which would have created a hurdle for worthy rail projects like the 3-C connector sought by President Obama and any future regional light-rail system.

Among the groups that opposed Issue 9 were the local Democratic Party, the Charter Committee, the AFL-CIO and the League of Women Voters. Supporters included the NAACP, COAST and the local Green Party.

Issue 8 involved the future of the Greater Cincinnati Water Works, the main water supplier for about 235,000 homes and businesses in the region.

City officials are studying whether to sell the city-owned utility to a newly created regional water authority, overseen by a board of trustees and regulated by rules spelled out in Ohio law. The regional district would pay a sliding annual payment to Cincinnati for the utility, starting at $6 million its first year and increasing each year for the next 75 years.

Supporters said the sale would cause the utility’s customer base to expand, which would help it operate more efficiently. Opponents counter the sale wouldn’t give the city any control over rate hikes and lessens accountability.

In one memorable statement, Smitherman said on a radio show he feared the water district would be able to send lower-quality or hazardous water to poor areas. That’s technically impossible, replied Water Works staffers.

Regardless, the previous process for selling the utility included oversight by a judge. That person could require a public vote, if he or she deemed it necessary. Now, with Issue 8’s approval, such a vote would be mandatory.

In other election results, voters passed all four Hamilton County tax levies. Issues 6 (continued funding for the Museum Center at Union Terminal) and Issue 7 (new local funds for the library system) passed easily with 67 and 73 percent of the votes, respectively. The Cincinnati Public Schools operating levy passed with 60 percent of the votes (see “Incumbents Win in CPS Race” for more on the CPS levy and school board results).

All three statewide ballot issues in Ohio passed, with the most contentious, the casino referendum (Issue 3), winning 53-47 percent. Dan Gilbert, the Cleveland businessman who won the right to develop casinos there and in Cincinnati, had said he would begin work on the local casino project at Broadway Commons downtown today, the day after Election Day.

[Photo: Xavier University students and the media wait for results to post at the Hamilton County Board of Elections after polls closed Nov. 3. Photo by Sean Hughes.]

Get unofficial HAMILTON COUNTY ELECTION RESULTS here and unofficial OHIO ISSUE RESULTS here.

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