What Good Are These Tax Levies, Anyway?

Two Hamilton County tax levies -- one to care for neglected and abused children and another for hospital care for the poor -- are up for five-year renewals Nov. 6. Why shouldn't property owners

Oct 18, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Two Hamilton County tax levies — one to care for neglected and abused children and another for hospital care for the poor — are up for five-year renewals Nov. 6.

Why shouldn't property owners vote no and save themselves a few bucks? Because doing so would remove 40 percent of the budget for the Hamilton County Department of Children's Services and bring budget cuts to two hospitals, likely restricting the ability of the poor and working poor to get medical care.

County voters first approved the Children's Services Levy in 1981 to provide state-mandated services for abused and neglected children. The agency was involved with 17,228 county children in 2000 through foster care, child protection and other services.

This $200 million levy is definitely warranted, according to attorney George Vincent, chair of the Hamilton County Tax Levy Review Committee. The Hamilton County Commissioners created the nine-member committee in 1996 to carefully examine the merit of requests for county tax levies.

County commissioners have refunded $23 million from this levy to property owners in the past three years. The Review Committee voted 9-0 to put the levy on the ballot as Issue 2.

Issue 1, renewal of the health and hospitalization levy, raises more difficult questions.

Originally approved in 1966 to provide health care for the poor, the levy levy also pays for inmates' health care, drug treatment and tuberculosis control.

Much of the money helps the working poor — people with low-paying jobs who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. The University of Cincinnati and Children's Hospital medical centers, which receive levy proceeds, asked for a 35 percent increase in the $210 million levy earlier this year to cover the increasing cost of medical care.

The Levy Review Committee voted 8-1 to recommend a 21 percent increase. The commissioners voted 3-0 for a 26 percent increase to $264 million. Children's Hospital receives 20 percent of the money and University Hospital gets the other 80 percent.

This increased levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $70 per year, up from $51 per year for the old levy.

"We haven't had an increase for 10 years," says Al Tuchfarber, director of the University of Cincinnati's Institute of Policy Research and spokesperson for the Issue 1 campaign.

Surgeon Dr. Kevin D. Marti, a former Levy Review Committee member, closely examined this levy on his own. He argued that Children's and University hospitals didn't lose the $12 million they say they lost providing indigent care, but instead turned a profit of about $70 million. That's because the hospitals' bottom lines didn't include approximately $150 million from Ohio's Hospital Care Assurance Program (HCAP) in the past five years.

But Tuchfarber argues the HCAP dollars are meant to supplement what the hospitals already spend on care for the poor and working poor.

"You can get a roaring argument over that assumption," he says.

Even if the HCAP funds were counted as regular operating dollars, both hospitals still lost money on indigent care, according to Tuchfarber. Three experts representing different parties all agreed on that point, he says.

Vincent sees both sides of the issue.

"All of the analyses that were done were correct," he says.

But each analysis used different assumptions about what the money was supposed to be for.

In any case, Dr. Martin was helpful, Vincent says.

"I thought Dr. Martin performed a huge service to our community," Vincent says. "He contributed greatly to the dialogue."

A lingering question is whether or not Good Samaritan and Bethesda hospitals, among others providing indigent care, should also get some of the levy dollars. The levy committee agreed, by a 5-4 vote. The county commissioners, however, kept the existing formula, saying the issue would be dealt with later.

Tuchfarber says his focus is on the levy, not how it's divided.

"We're not going to argue the sharing issue now," he says.

For more information about Issue 2, visit the Children's Services site at www.4safekids.org/index.htm.

To find out how much the tax levies cost property owners, visit the Hamilton County Auditor's Web site at www.hamiltoncountyauditor.org.