CINCINNATI - Hamilton County's three commissioners vote Wednesday whether to raise the county's sales tax or reduce the property tax rollback voters approved in 1996 to build two new ball parks.
The decision is being driven by a projected $7 million deficit in the stadium sales tax fund, which pays for debt service and operations at Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown Stadium.
Commission President Greg Hartmann favors reducing the rollback. Todd Portune backs a sales tax hike.
Chris Monzel asked for more data Monday to help him make his decision.
"We've been placed up against a wall here," said Hartmann. "There are no other options than reducing the property tax rollback or raising the sales tax to fix the sales tax fund."
Hartmann favors cutting the rollback 50 percent, which would generate $10 million in each of the next two years. That means property owners would pay about $35 per year more in property taxes.
"It would also include team contributions," he said. "It's not time to talk to the teams yet until we decide as a board what we're going to do on this."
Mark Quarry, Director of Government Affairs for the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors, said his organization wants to keep the full rollback because it's a promise made to voters in 1996.
"What is more sacred? A contract with professional sports teams or the Cincinnati Public Schools or the word -- the promise that was made to a voter," he said.
Quarry said his main concern is that messing with the rollback could dampen the real estate recovery in the region and drive people out of Hamilton County.
"What other option are they going to have than to move elsewhere so that their property tax burden isn't as great?" he wondered "It cannot help in any way. It can only hurt."
Portune last week called for increasing the sales tax from 6.50 to 6.75 percent. That would add $0.25 to the tax of a $100 purchase and generate about $30 million a year.
He said when voters approved the tax hike to build the stadiums, they agreed to pay a specific amount of money. However, the sales tax hasn't performed at the projected level.
"The quarter-cent allows us to do it," he said. "I don't disagree that it's a change in the rate and it's an increase in the rate, but the bottom line is this community agreed to raise a certain amount of money and we haven't done it."
Plus, Portune said the tax hike spreads the cost of the ball parks throughout the area. More than 50 percent of revenue is generated by people who don't live in Hamilton County. He also suggested putting a sunshine provision in the ordinance to and perform regular reviews of revenue received.
Monzel thanked his fellow commissioners for putting him between a rock and a hard place. He will be the swing vote on the plan that ultimately is chosen.
His request for more financial information centered on possibly delaying $1.9 million in spending for Phase II of The Banks. That money comes from the stadium fund.
The $1.9 millioin is for preparation work on the next phase of apartment construction plus things like fixing the brick walkways along Second Street and replacing the rusting stairway and bridge over Pete Rose Way to U.S. Bank Arena.
"If we decided not to do that for next year, could we affect this December amount of the million dollars for this year?" Monzel asked Hamilton County Administrator Christian Sigman.
Sigman replied, "Yes, that expense could be deferred, delayed or eliminated."
However, Portune said that is neither a long-term solution nor one that solves the deficit for next year.
"We're left with two options that none of us like at all," he said.
Some people have suggested selling the stadiums or letting the county go bankrupt to make the stadium fund solvent. However, Portune dismissed those suggestions.
"We all have to be adults about this conversation," he said. "Those kinds of proposed solutions -- we've either explored them all already, tried them all already and found out that we can't do them or it's impossible for us to do them or they simply are not answers. They don't provide the revenue that we need."
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