CINCINNATI - A controversial proposal to privatize the city of Cincinnati's parking system for 30 years is fueling the first major dispute in this year's mayoral campaign.
John Cranley, an ex-city councilman who is running for mayor, challenged his likely opponent, current Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, on Friday to hold a public debate on the proposal before City Council makes a decision.
Council is expected to vote on the parking plan this month, possibly Feb. 20.
"In light of the fact that this is an irrevocable deal that will significantly impact the city for years to come and the next mayor's ability to move the city forward, the voters deserve a full airing of this issue by the mayoral candidates," Cranley said.
After WCPO Digital asked Qualls for a response, her campaign released a letter Friday afternoon rejecting Cranley's idea.
Instead of a single debate now on one issue, Qualls wants a series of five debates held after the Sept. 10 mayoral primary. The primary is designed to narrow the field of mayoral candidates to just two contenders.
Jens Sutmoller, Qualls' campaign manager, wrote in a letter to Cranley, "… few are served by a debate on a singular issue that you claim to oppose even before the actual proposal, including all the facts and details, are known."
The letter added, "Once the city manager releases his actual recommendation, you may find that you will have wished you had waited on expressing your opposition."
To help avoid a $34 million deficit in the city's budget for next year, City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. has proposed leasing the system of city-owned parking lots and parking garages to a private contractor.
Dohoney wanted at least a $40 million upfront, lump-sum payment from any company interested in operating the system, along with an annual fee paid over the term of the 30-year deal.
Companies that have shown interest in leasing the parking system, however, have indicated they might pay as much as $150 million in upfront money.
Critics of the proposal, however, said it could leave City Council and residents with little recourse if the contractor sharply increases parking rates or alters hours at the sites.
Besides Cranley, other opponents include Councilman P.G. Sittenfield, a Democrat, and Councilman Christopher Smitherman, an independent.
"Individual citizens have made clear that they are overwhelmingly against outsourcing our parking system," Sittenfield said recently.
Meanwhile, Smitherman said the proposal doesn't deal with the structural imbalances in the city budget that have led to a string of deficits in recent years.
"This is a one-time revenue source that does not solve the unstructured balanced budget out to 2016," Smitherman said.
"It is ill-advised to give up our long-term ability to control parking rates downtown," he added. "The city of Cincinnati has a fundamental issue of expenses that are higher than current revenues. The most important solution is to stop the spending and reduce expenses."
Cranley said the parking proposal has long-term implications that should be debated fully before any decision is made.
"Given the generational aspect of this issue, this is a 30-year agreement, we should debate it before it's a done deal," Cranley said.
Additionally, Cranley criticized how Dohoney and his staff are conducting negotiations about the proposal behind closed doors, referring to it as a "culture of secrecy."
Cranley noted that no resident suggested the parking system be privatized during a series of public hearings and focus groups held about the budget last year, nor did any city official mention the concept.
"If (Qualls) succeeds in passing this plan, whoever is the next mayor will inherit it," he said. "This attitude is outrageous to the voters."
Qualls is proposing a minimum of five debates organized by neutral civic organizations and local TV network affiliates. At least three should be held in different neighborhoods around the city, she said.
"Vice Mayor Qualls believes the citizens of Cincinnati deserve a robust series of public debates between the two final 2013 mayoral candidates," Sutmoller wrote in his letter.
"She looks forward to articulating her optimistic vision of Cincinnati's future and the investments we need to make in our neighborhoods and city to achieve a welcoming city of opportunity for all our citizens," the letter continued.
Cranley and Qualls are both Democrats.
Under Cincinnati's form of government, a nonpartisan primary is held in September if there are more than two candidates. The two top vote-getters then go head-to-head in the November general election.
So far, Libertarian Jim Berns also has filed to run for mayor. The Hamilton County Republican Party probably will field a candidate, too.