Hamilton County voters will have say on sales tax hike to preserve Union Terminal, not Music Hall

Hartmann says icon tax vote was 'right' decision

UPDATE: The Cultural Facilities Task Force that developed the "Save Our Icons" plan for Union Terminal and Music Hall issued a statement Thursday asking Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel to answer a series of questions about his proposal. The task force called Monzel's proposal "the worst possible outcome of Wednesday's meeting." Read the full statement here.

CINCINNATI – A standing-room-only crowd booed Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann Wednesday after he cast the deciding vote to dump Music Hall from the so-called "icon tax" proposal.

Even so, Hartmann said hours later that he felt good about his decision.

"I think it was a difficult decision but the right one," he told WCPO. "The county taxpayers can't take on new liabilities right now."

 

Hartmann voted to support a proposal advanced by Commissioner Chris Monzel, his fellow Republican, to let voters decide in November whether to raise the county sales tax by a quarter-cent for five years to generate roughly $170 million for the restoration of Union Terminal.

If voters approve the measure, sales tax in Hamilton County would increase from 6.75 cents on the dollar to 7 cents on the dollar.

Influential business and community leaders wanted a plan that would raise the tax by a quarter-cent over 14 years to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to restore both Union Terminal and Music Hall.

That plan was the brainchild of the Cultural Facilities Task Force, a group of volunteers formed after the county's Tax Levy Review Committee asked the Cincinnati Museum Center to come up with a plan to address the serious problems facing Union Terminal.

Former Procter & Gamble Co. CEO Bob McDonald, recently confirmed as the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, was chairman of the group. In late June, McDonald presented the task force's $331 million plan to county officials, and it included both Union Terminal and Music Hall.

In the end, though, adding Music Hall was too much for Hartmann and Monzel.

"Ultimately, the decision was, should county taxpayers be on the hook for what is a city institution and a city building?" Hartmann said.

Sales Tax Limitations

For weeks, the battle cry for proponents of the task force's plan has been to "let the voters decide."

But Monzel argued it's more complicated than that.

 

State law gives Hamilton County commissioners power to levy up to a penny on the dollar in local sales tax. Half of that taxing authority is committed to the half-cent sales tax increase that voters approved in 1996 to fund construction of Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park.

That leaves a half-cent, and Monzel stressed during Wednesday's meeting that the county has many pressing – and expensive – needs that commissioners must address. Those include:

• $120 million needed to repair and maintain county buildings

• A new crime lab that will cost between $30 million and $40 million

• An updated 911 system that will cost between $13 million and $14 million

• Replacing voting equipment for the county Board of Elections, which doesn't yet have a price tag attached

Because of that, he said, he couldn't support the idea of dedicating half of what remains of the county's taxing authority to two more buildings over a long period of time.

"Whether you believe it or not, I do support and cherish the two buildings you have fought for," Monzel told the crowd of "Save Our Icons" supporters gathered for the meeting. "However, I cannot in good conscience support the plan."

Hartmann told WCPO later that the laundry list of county needs weighed into his decision to vote with Monzel, too.

"Part of our job is to make funding decisions on what our priorities are," he said. "To jump all those and put Music Hall to the top of the list didn't make any sense."

Sweetening The Deal

Proponents of the task force's plan had been working with Commissioner Todd Portune, the board's lone Democrat, to craft a user fee plan to reduce the amount that the county sales tax would have to fund in the plan.

The deal would have raised ticket prices for the Cincinnati Museum Center and performances at Music Hall by enough to raise more than $30 million over 25 years, Portune said. Of that, $10 million would have gone toward construction costs for the project. The rest would have been set aside for ongoing maintenance expenses to avoid another round of expensive repairs years from now.

The task force tried to sweeten the pot even more on Wednesday with a proposal unveiled by Murray Sinclaire, CEO of Ross Sinclaire Associates and chairman of the task force's finance committee.

In addition to the $10 million that the user fees would contribute to construction, private funders had pledged another $10 million to the project if it included both buildings. The task force also agreed to reduce the scope of the work by removing Dalton Street improvements from the plan, which would have saved another $9 million. And that was on top of an additional $2 million that the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation pledged to the effort.

That would have brought the total private contributions pledged to the project up to $52 million.

"At the end of the day, it wasn't enough," Portune told WCPO. "I'm not sure anything would have been enough."

Switching Gears?

Portune said he found out Tuesday afternoon that Hartmann had "switched gears" on the icon tax proposal and was leaning toward a proposal that only included Union Terminal.

"From the very beginning, Greg was more supportive of doing this than I," Portune said. "At least, that's how it came across to me, and he was always in favor of advancing both."

Hartmann said early on that he thought the city of Cincinnati should contribute more to the plan's financing because the city owns both Union Terminal and Music Hall.

The city already had pledged $10 million towards the Music Hall revitalization. And after conversations between Hartmann and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, Cincinnati City Council voted to spend $200,000 per year for maintenance for each of the buildings for the next 25 years – another $10 million pledge.

The city has been spending that amount of money to help maintain each building for many years, and the city proposal was written to take effect only if commissioners voted to put the task force's plan on the ballot and only if voters approved it.

When asked Wednesday whether there was anything that the city or the task force could have done to win his support, Hartmann answered: "Potentially money."

"But I don't have any blame for the city," he added. "The mayor understood where I was coming from, and I understood where he was coming from."

Hartmann added that he didn't view his vote as a change of heart.

"I've been skeptical about a lead role for the county in Music Hall for the whole process," he told WCPO.

During a City Council meeting Wednesday afternoon, Cranley called commissioners' vote "bizarro" and "weird."

"This is utterly ridiculous to me that this is happening," Councilmember Yvette Simpson said. "We're a region. They're both iconic buildings that represent the county in ways that no other buildings do."

Councilman Chris Seelbach said conservative Tea Party activists and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes had "gotten in the way of what is right."

But Hartmann said 90 percent of the pressure he got on the issue came from supporters of the task force's plan, and they were the people who packed the commissioners' meeting room Wednesday.

"The people who make the most noise don't generally win the day," he said. "We have to make a decision that's right for the county."

Figuring Out What's Next

The outcome Wednesday was welcomed by conservative county activists and business owners who had urged county commissioners to delay a vote or at least dramatically reduce the scope of the project.

"The best thing that I see is two commissioners have clearly set out what the county's funding priorities need to be, and that's the building that is broken – Union Terminal," said Dan Regenold, CEO of Frame USA who has been a spokesman for critics of the task force's plan. "I'm thrilled for Doug McDonald today that he's got a chance to get his building fixed."

That's not how Doug McDonald saw it, though.

McDonald, CEO of the Cincinnati Museum Center, said after the commissioners' meeting that he had spent three hours with Monzel the previous day explaining that a five-year plan to fund only Union Terminal repairs wouldn't work.

 

"We showed that never was there a concept or a plan that was achievable in five years," McDonald said. "I think this is a political response which fails to resolve a very real community problem."

Museum Center Board Chairwoman Francie Hiltz called the decision "an abdication of leadership."

"I think this was a failure," she said. "What Commissioner Monzel gave us was something that was almost 48 hours old, and we have no idea what it really means."

Right-Sized Or Wrong Call?

Monzel said it wasn't his intent to craft a new, alternate plan for the task force. Rather, his proposal to let the voters decide whether a sales tax increase should generate $170 million for Union Terminal over the next five years gives the Museum Center and its supporters a starting point for a new plan, he said.

"The whole focus was allowing the citizens an opportunity to vote with really focusing on what the county has been involved with, which is the Museum Center and making sure that we can fix a building that's actually crumbling," he said. "To me that's what it's all about."

That's what it was supposed to be about when the task force convened in December, he added.

"I think we got sidetracked a bit – probably out of the good intentions of the Cultural Facilities Task Force," he said. "Mine is a right-sized plan that's not super-sized by adding Music Hall."

Task force members have said their plan included both buildings for several reasons. One was because private funders knew they would be asked to donate for both buildings. Another was that cost savings were realized in planning and financing both projects at once.

Sinclaire called the proposal that passed Wednesday "very frustrating."

"It's Sophie's Choice. We don't want to pick one over the other," he said. "The math doesn't add up."

Back To Work

Sinclaire said he would try to convene a meeting of the task force for Thursday morning to figure out next steps, but he didn't know if that would be possible.

"We'll look to find a plan for Music Hall," he said.

Before the vote, task force members had warned that most of the philanthropic contributions included in the plan were tied to Music Hall.

 

And in comments made by telephone during Wednesday's meeting, Bob McDonald cautioned that the roughly $50 million in historic tax credits that were part of the project's financing plan could be wiped out if Music Hall wasn't part of the deal.

Sinclaire said he was still struggling to figure out what went wrong with the task force's proposal.

"The plan is incredibly complicated," he said. "I'm not sure there was a full understanding of all the components. I think the stadium issue as well got in our way. We tried to differentiate and obviously didn't do a good enough job."

The renovation plan for Music Hall likely will have to be altered, said Otto Budig, president of the board of the Music Hall Revitalization Company.

"We're going to fall back and punt," he said. "We're going to look at the Music Hall revitalization and begin to break it down into segments and prioritize those segments to determine what we can afford to do using philanthropic support, tax credits, city funds and user fees."

Budig said he expects most – if not all – of the philanthropic funds pledged to the task force's proposal will go to Music Hall instead of splitting the money between both buildings.

Budig said Union Terminal clearly wouldn't need the money, but others aren't so sure.

The measure passed Wednesday eliminated a property tax that had been generating about $3 million a year for Cincinnati Museum Center operations, Portune noted, and he said he believes task force members when they tell him Monzel's proposal won't be enough.

"It doesn't do the job, and it leaves them in a precarious position as far as their annual operating expenses go," he said. "And to that end, it could end up doing more harm than good."

For his part, Monzel called it "hyperbole" to say his proposal wouldn't be enough to make the necessary repairs at Union Terminal if voters approve the tax.

"I think it's unfortunately a case of people who are unhappy they didn't get what they wanted," he said. "The reality is, it's a lot of money."

 And the vote has left the people working to restore Union Terminal and Music Hall with a lot of work to do.

Music Hall tenants 'upset'; vow to move forward

By Matt Peiken | Arts and Entertainment reporter

CINCINNATI — Music Hall tenants were upset and dismayed by the Hamilton's County Commissioners vote, but determined to move forward.

“We know this is a setback, but it’s not the end and we’re not giving up,” said Missie Santomo, chief operating officer of the Cincinnati Ballet.

Built in 1878 across from Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine, Music Hall is home to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Opera and the May Festival Chorus. The Cincinnati Ballet, which now performs chiefly at the Aronoff Center, planned to return to Music Hall after renovations.

After six hours of testimony over two public hearings, Hamilton County commissioners voted 2-1 Wednesday to only include Union Terminal in a proposal to pay for repairs largely by increasing the county’s sales tax a quarter-cent. The original proposal before commissioners included both Union Terminal and Music Hall in a plan to raise the sales tax for roughly 14 years. The vast majority of testimony over those hearings came from “Save Our Icons” supporters.

Arts and civic leaders at the heart of the more ambitious plan said bundling Music Hall and Union Terminal was essential both financially and politically. While Music Hall stood little chance on its own of winning enough support at the ballot in November, it was Music Hall that attracted the more than $40 million privately pledged for the renovations. Without Music Hall in the mix, insiders said, that money is likely off the table.

“The decision of the County Commissioners was unfortunate and not in the best interest of our region,” said Chris Pinelo, the orchestra’s communications director.

Still, from an artistic standpoint, Wednesday's decision by commissioners has no immediate impact. The orchestra is about to open its 2014-15 season and the opera company will continue programming three of its four summer productions at Music Hall. Pinelo wouldn’t speculate on how long arts groups can continue planning and programming around Music Hall in its current condition.

“We’ve had to be as flexible as an orchestra can be when it comes to long-term planning and the possibility of Music Hall being renovated,” he said. “We’re still planning extraordinary concert experiences for next season and beyond.”

Any real impacts will largely be felt by the ballet company, if mostly behind the scenes. While officials at the Aronoff Center have worked with ballet leaders to control costs, Santomo said, the company still pays extra and loses potential ticket revenue when extending the orchestra pit.

“Our goal has been to get back to Music Hall, and we’ll come up with another plan,” Santomo said. “Our collaboration we’ve had with the CSO, opera and May Festival over so many years, I look at this as we’re a family, and we’ll get through this and work through this together as a family.”

WCPO Reporter Lisa Bernard-Kuhn contributed to this report.

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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