Will Cincinnati-area voters support new taxes for preschool, schools, parks and children's services?

This is the first in a four-part series about the tax levies that Hamilton County and Cincinnati voters may see on the November ballot. 

CINCINNATI -- Parks. Universal preschool. Better schools. Protection for abused children.

The needs might sound compelling, but will Hamilton County and Cincinnati voters want to pay for all of them at once?

Voters likely will weigh four levies in November that would benefit: 

  • Cincinnati Public Schools
  • Hamilton County Children's Services
  • Great Parks of Hamilton County
  • Preschool Promise for universal preschool

It is unclear exactly how much taxpayers will be asked to pay. Each group is finalizing how much money it needs and how it will present that need to voters. Final plans for all the levies should be released to the public by June.

Normally a presidential election year is the best time to put a levy on the ballot because of high voter turnout that usually leans more liberal, experts said.

But some local leaders are wondering if voters will have an appetite for new taxes — especially so many of them all at one time.

“I think voters have had enough, and the indication of that was the park levy," said Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Cincinnati. “People who are putting up these levies better see the writing on wall because of what happened with Issue 22.”

Last November, voters resoundingly defeated the Issue 22 levy that would have helped Cincinnati parks with overdue maintenance and added bike and walking trails and a Downtown marina.

The campaign supporting the parks tax spent more than $1 million, yet a surprising 58 percent of voters said no to the tax increase.

Now, just three months later, groups across the county are trying to figure out how they will ask voters for more money.

Voters often struggle with new taxes. While they might support the idea of adding new services, they are often hesitant to pay for it.

“For most voters, those kinds of questions are something they wrestle with a little bit,” University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven said. “They typically like the intent, but they typically would also like to spend less money.”

Preschool Promise wants a levy on the November ballot to offer universal preschool in Cincinnati.

It isn’t just tax foes, such as Brinkman, who are critical about the levies on the November ballot. Even some Democrats are skeptical.

Leaders from the Preschool Promise campaign visited Cincinnati City Council’s Education and Entrepreneurship Committee on Feb. 9 to explain how they want to offer universal preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds within either the city of Cincinnati or Hamilton County, depending on the final form of the proposal.

“I’m just worried about a tax. I’m not sure that’s the right way to go,” Council member Wendell Young, a Democrat, told them.

It might be better to ask the business community, rather than taxpayers, to pay for preschool, he said.

The Preschool Promise presentation also drew cautious questions from PG Sittenfeld, a Democrat who chairs the committee and is also running for U.S. Senate. He wondered if voters would support two levies: one for preschool and one for public schools. 

Even Stephanie Byrd, a leader of the Preschool Promise campaign, admitted concern about what might happen this fall.

“I think anytime you have as many issues on the ballot that may be on the ballot this fall, it raises concerns about what’s going to be successful and at what price,” Byrd said.

Cincinnati Public Schools headquarters. Photo by Phil Didion.

 

What Levies Will Voters Like?

Voters are usually so distracted by the big names in a presidential election that local ballot issues don’t get much attention.

Unless there’s one they don’t like.

“You can’t compete with people’s imagination with Donald Trump running,” Niven said.

And advertising is so expensive during presidential election cycles that it’s even harder for local groups to get their pro-levy messages out to voters.

“So if you are going to put something on the ballot, make sure it’s something people love already, like schools,” he said. “If you need to overcome resistance and sell the idea, you’re probably better off in year where you’d get more attention.”

The one issue that might not make it to the ballot this year is a levy to pay for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority. 

A task force is studying how the transit authority can pay for future demands, but officials say a tax levy isn’t on the table yet. SORTA manages the county’s bus system and will soon operate the city’s streetcar.

“We’re not really at a levy situation,” SORTA spokeswoman Sallie Hilvers said. “The task force has to complete its work before (the transit authority's board) even begins discussing anything at this point.”

A Metro bus in downtown Cincinnati.

A potential transportation tax seems to be the hardest sell to tax opponents.

“Nobody takes the bus anymore. Gas prices are down,” Brinkman said. “Anybody can buy a car for $1,000.”

What Will Voters Support?

All of the potential levies have weak spots.

County parks leaders are deciding if they’ll ask for a renewal of their current 15-year levy or if they’ll ask for additional money.

Tax opponents say voters might be tired of being asked to pay for parks.

“I don’t know whether there will be any kind of hangover from what happened last fall with issue 22,” said Don Mooney, a Democratic activist who was a vocal opponent of the city parks levy last year.

Tim Mara, an attorney who led the effort against the city park levy in 2015, hopes voters will distinguish between that levy, which he describes as "one very screwed up campaign," and county parks leaders who have, "demonstrated delivery of a quality product," he said. 

“There could be confusion between the city park levy and county park levy,” Mara said. “The county people will have to go to some lengths to distinguish between them.”

Miami Whitewater Forest is the largest park in the Great Parks of Hamilton County.

Voters might be more sympathetic to a children's services levy, because the levy hasn't been increased for more than two decades. But that property tax levy is already the third most expensive one in the county. 

Hamilton County commissioners are expected to decide in July if they will put a measure on the ballot asking taxpayers to spend more money on the agency, which cares for abused and neglected children. 

But another child welfare levy initiative might be a harder sell to voters. 

Critics such as Brinkman don’t want to pay for universal preschool because, “it’s glorified babysitting; that’s all it is," he said.

Unless Preschool Promise and Cincinnati public school leaders can come to an agreement and merge into one levy, they might risk sabotaging one another.

“The problem might be that they end up competing with each other and that would be a bad thing,” Mooney said.

And if just one of the levies on the ballot begins to garner serious opposition, it might put all of them in jeopardy.

“The more of these things you have on the ballot, the more sticker shock people have and the more people vote no,” Mooney said.

 

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