Hamilton County accepts Mount Airy site for new crime lab

Commissioners: Elections Board isn't needed there

CINCINNATI -- Hamilton County commissioners unanimously approved Wednesday accepting a former hospital site in Mount Airy as a gift, and said it’s still a good deal for the county even if the Board of Elections doesn’t move there.

Commissioners said the top priority is to create a new, expanded regional crime lab at the 70-acre site on Kipling Avenue, which once housed Mercy Franciscan Hospital.

But what other county offices fill the remainder of the site will be decided after a thorough review of the county’s space needs. That process could take two to five years.

“We have other functions of county government that can go out there that will make it financially viable,” said Commission President Chris Monzel.

Among the services that could be located at the Mount Airy site are administrative offices and evidence storage for the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department; the county’s planning and development operations; or the Job and Family Services Department.

Whether the Board of Elections moves to the 480,000 square-foot site rests solely with board members and Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, not county commissioners, Monzel added.

Catholic Health Partners offered to give Hamilton County the former hospital site free of charge so it no longer has to pay for upkeep. The firm needed an answer from the county by Feb. 1.

Moving the Board of Elections away from downtown Cincinnati is sharply opposed by some people, including most local Democratic officials and the NAACP’s local chapter.

The Mount Airy site is too remote and is only served by one bus line, critics said. As a result, they believe it will hamper access for low-income voters who don’t own a vehicle.

More than 24,000 people cast early voting ballots at the board’s downtown offices during the 2012 presidential election. An estimated 42,000 households countywide don’t own a vehicle and rely on public transit.

The NAACP’s local chapter is consulting with the organization’s national office about filing a lawsuit against the Board of Elections if the move ultimately is approved.

The Board of Elections deadlocked 2-2 along party lines this week about moving its operations to Mount Airy.

Republican members Alex Triantafilou and Chip Gerhardt favored the move; Democrats Caleb Faux and Tim Burke were opposed.

Husted, a Republican, has asked local officials to reach a compromise on the Board of Elections potential move so he doesn’t have to cast the deciding vote.

Mayor John Cranley and State Rep. Alicia Reece (D-Bond Hill) have offered two alternatives to keep some or all of the Board of Elections’ operations in downtown Cincinnati. Both involve offering city-owned property for a nominal $1 fee.

Hamilton County officials want the Mount Airy facility primarily for a new, expanded regional crime lab.

It would cost $56 million to build a new crime lab, but only about $25 million to renovate part of the hospital for that purpose, county officials said.

But the crime lab would only fill about one-quarter of the site.

The Board of Elections currently rents three sites: its main offices downtown, a Fairfax warehouse to store voting machines, and a Clifton conference center to train poll workers.

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