'Save Our Icons' proponents building support for tax increase to help Union Terminal, Music Hall

Critics ask county to keep measure off Nov. ballot

CINCINNATI – Supporters of the so-called "icon tax" are inching closer to winning the support of two Hamilton County commissioners to put the measure before voters in November.

Aug. 6 is the deadline for adding any measures to the ballot. The "icon tax" proposal would increase Hamilton County's sales tax by 25 cents on the dollar to fund the renovation and restoration of Union Terminal and Music Hall. If approved, it would raise the rate from 6.75 cents on the dollar to 7 cents on the dollar.

In an interview after the commissioners' staff meeting Monday, Commission President Chris Monzel said he would not support placing the tax increase on the ballot if Music Hall remains part of the proposal.

Monzel suggested that focusing the plan on Union Terminal would reduce the burden on county taxpayers and could reduce the number of years the sales tax would be in place.

He noted that the county already has a half-cent of its sales tax authority invested in paying for Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park.

Dedicating another quarter-cent, he said, would be "putting the responsibility of three fourths of our taxing authority on four buildings" for years to come.

"I think that's too much, too big," he said of the proposal to fund both Union Terminal and Music Hall.

Critics of the plan echoed that sentiment in a letter to commissioners dated Aug. 3.

"Music Hall must be removed from any currently considered TAX increase for Hamilton County," stated the letter signed by 50 people, many of whom are members of the Republican Central Committee. "We suggest that the Commissioners step back from the temptation to rush this initiative onto the November ballot."

Portune's Support Growing

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, the lone Democrat among the commissioners, was more open to keeping both buildings in the plan.

"Well over 50 percent of the work plan at Music Hall revolves around safety, code and accessibility," he said. "It's work that cannot be ignored and work that can't be deferred."

Portune has spent the last several weeks negotiating with backers of the "icon tax" plan to come up with a user fee that could help finance either construction or long-term maintenance of the buildings.

All three commissioners said they believe a user fee should be part of the plan. Initially, supporters didn't include one for fear that making tickets more expensive would reduce attendance at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal and the performances held at Music Hall.

Portune said details of a user fee still are being ironed out, but he expects the additional cost per ticket to be at least 5 percent.

The fee could raise more than $1 million per year, he said, and could generate close to $29 million over time.

That represents about 10 percent of the $290 million in construction costs for the repairs and renovations to both buildings, he noted.

The total $331 million project cost includes so-called "soft costs" and interest payments, too.

Portune said after the meeting that he and proponents of the "icon tax" plan have had some "breakthroughs."

"We're talking ranges right now that tell me we're going to get there," he said. "That's where having deadlines is important. Otherwise you never get there."

City Pledges Continued Funding

If Portune and supporters of the "icon tax" plan do get there, that would appear to leave Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann as the swing vote.

"It seems that way," Hartmann told WCPO after the commissioners meeting.

Hartmann made it clear during the meeting that he wanted to see the city of Cincinnati contribute more money to the plan.

The city owns both Music Hall and Union Terminal. City Council already has pledged $10 million to the renovations at Music Hall. On Monday, council's Budget & Finance Committee voted to pledge $200,000 per year for maintenance of each building over the next 25 years.

Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld noted that the city has been spending $400,000 for maintenance of the two buildings for years, and the new agreement would simply codify that for years to come.

Council member Yvette Simpson asked if the city had any guarantees that county commissioners would put the measure on the ballot if the city agreed to the 25-year commitment.

"Do we have some sort of certainty from the commissioners that if we pass this today, the issue will go to the ballot?" she asked. "Is it signed in blood, sealed in a brief case, locked up somewhere where no one can get to it?"

The answer to that was no. But the city pledge is written in such a way that if the commissioners don't put the measure on the ballot – or if voters don't pass it – the city won't be bound to the deal.

All six members of the Budget & Finance Committee present Monday voted in favor of the measure, indicating that the measure will pass during the City Council meeting Wednesday.

The city has been providing $200,000 a year for maintenance for each building since at least 2002 for a total of $2.4 million spent per building. The city also has paid Music Hall $100,000 per year related to its parking garage since 1974 for a total of $4 million. That's on top of the $3,200 the city spent to purchase the land for Music Hall in 1818, the $120,000 in debt it paid off for the hall in 1939 or the $1 million the city paid for the land around Union Terminal when the Union Terminal Company went out of business years ago.

Hartmann Appears To Be Swing Vote

Hartmann said he doesn't know yet how he will vote Wednesday.

During the county commissioners' meeting, he urged elected city officials to be "aggressive" with their additional financial support.

A spokesman for Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said Monday afternoon that the proposal approved by council members should be enough.

"The city has delivered on its end of the bargain, and now the county needs to deliver," Kevin Osborne, a spokesman for Cranley, said in the statement. "We've done all we can do."

Hartmann told WCPO that the city council vote Monday would figure into his decision. He said he also agrees with Monzel that the county has a much longer and stronger history of supporting Union Terminal and the Cincinnati Museum Center.

"But these are both important facilities that ultimately I think the voters ought to have a say in," he said. "What form that takes is what this debate is about."

For their part, members of the Cultural Facilities Task Force appeared confident Monday. The task force is the group of business and community leaders who spent seven months crafting the "icon tax" proposal that was first presented to county leaders in June.

Murray Sinclaire, a task force member and co-founder of Ross Sinclaire and Associates business advisory firm, addressed the council committee after its vote Monday.

"We would like to thank you for your commitment and your leadership, your contribution and your collaborative spirit with the county that I think will make this project a go," he said.

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

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