Judge issues injunction against city parking lease, allows referendum

CINCINNATI - A judge issued a permanent injunction Thursday morning against the city of Cincinnati's lease of its parking system.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Winkler's decision means the lease cannot take effect until a group of citizens complete the effort to hold a referendum on the issue.

In his ruling, Winkler said City Council's use of an emergency clause to have the lease take effect immediately does not supercede provisions in the city's charter or Ohio law that ensures the right to referendum for most legislative actions.

"The city charter's reference to Ohio law applies the procedures to be followed in exercising the people's right to initiative and referendum; it places no restraint or limitation on that right," the ruling stated.

Curt Hartman, attorney for the residents who want a referendum, said the ruling is a victory for voters' rights.

"Obviously, we're very pleased and happy with the judge's decision," Hartman said. "The city argued this wasn't about the citizens' right to vote and we said it was. The court agreed with us."

Attorneys for the city were thought to be headed back to court at 1 p.m. before a different judge -- Ted Winkler, Robert's brother -- to ask for a stay pending an appeal. As of 11:50 a.m., though, the judge hadn't received paperwork needed for an appeal.

Also, Mayor Mark Mallory will hold a 1 p.m. press conference at City Hall. He will discuss the financial impact of the injunction on the city's budget.
 
Cincinnati is on track to have a $10 million deficit in 2014, a $15.5 million deficit in 2015 and a $20 million deficit in 2016.
 
City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. has said it would be necessary to lay off some police officers and firefighters if the lease isn't approved.
 
Some council candidates, however, have proposed plans for covering the deficits without layoffs.
 
For example, candidate Greg Landsman has identified $23 million in potential savings. They include $3.5 million saved from not filling vacant positions, $2 million in carry-over from last year, $7.5 million in casino tax revenue, and $7 million in additional parking revenue from a parking deal with the Port Authority that's locally financed and doesn't involve a New York hedge fund.

Additionally, although Dohoney has repeatedly said parking revenues cannot be used in the city's general fund, a recent memo on the topic indicates meter revenues can be used for that purpose. Only revenues from parking garages and lots are restricted.
 
City Council approved leasing Cincinnati's parking system to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority on March 6. A group of citizens immediately filed a complaint alleging that council added an emergency clause to the ordinance solely to thwart a voter referendum.

Winkler issued a temporary injunction minutes after council's approval and – after a brief detour through federal court – the case landed back in his courtroom.

The lease of the city of Cincinnati's parking system will generate more than a half-billion dollars in revenue over 40 years, with between 24 percent and 41 percent going to the city.

The lease of Cincinnati's parking meters, lots and garages to the Port Authority is estimated to yield a total of $570.7 million, according to the city's financial consultant.

Under the deal, the city will get an upfront payment of $92 million, along with annual payments that begin at $3 million and increase gradually over time.

The net present value of the lease for the city is $197.4 million.

With the money, city administrators would cover a nearly $26 million deficit in the budget and jumpstart several development projects including construction of a luxury apartment building downtown.

Lease supporters say the deal will help the city grow its tax base.

Critics counter that the deal lessens public accountability for the assets, and fear that increases in parking rates will hurt small businesses.

The lease has become a central issue in this year's mayoral campaign, with Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls supporting the lease and John Cranley opposed.

"The leasing of the city's parking meters is a terrible deal for taxpayers, which will harm our neighborhoods and business," Cranley said. "I'm glad that the voters will have the chance to put a stop to it in November."

WCPO Digital is seeking comment from Qualls about today's ruling.

WCPO Digital and 9 On Your Side will update this story as more information becomes available.

 

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