Hamilton County commissioners have unanswered questions before they will support 'icon tax' proposal

Deadline is Aug. 6 to get issue on November ballot

UPDATE: Hamilton County commissioners will discuss the "icon tax" proposal at their 11 a.m. staff meeting Monday. At 1 p.m. Monday, Cincinnati City Council's Budget and Finance Committee will discuss a proposal to commit city funds to help with maintenance of Union Terminal and Music Hall for the next 25 years. WCPO will be covering both meetings. Check back for updates.

CINCINNATI – Proponents of the so-called "icon tax" to help fund repairs for Union Terminal and Music Hall only need the votes of two Hamilton County commissioners to put the issue before voters.

As of Friday afternoon, they had none.

The commissioners are scheduled to discuss the proposal during their staff meeting Monday. It will be their first opportunity to discuss the issue in-depth as a group and try to figure out if there's a proposal that at least two of the three of them can support.

Influential business and community leaders want the commissioners to put a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot to help fund hundreds of millions of dollars in renovations and repairs at Union Terminal and Music Hall.

The CEO of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber turned up the heat Friday with a letter to commissioners "strongly" encouraging them to put the measure on the ballot.

"The Chamber believes that the Board of County Commissioners has sufficient, well-researched information to allow the voters of Hamilton County to decide whether or not to approve a .25 percent sales tax increase to address the needs of these facilities," wrote chamber CEO Brian Carley.

If commissioners vote to put it on the ballot – and if voters approve the measure – it would raise the Hamilton County sales tax from 6.75 cents on the dollar to 7 cents on the dollar.

The deadline for adding anything to the November ballot is Aug. 6, but Commissioner Todd Portune said Friday that he doesn't "feel any pressure at all" to vote by then.

"I'll either be ready or I won't," he said. "And if I'm not, I'm not. And that's just the way it is."

Where Portune Stands

The big sticking point for Portune is the issue of a user fee. The original tax proposal developed by the Cultural Facilities Task Force did not include one.

Portune and other commissioners have argued that the people who go to the Cincinnati Museum Center attractions at Union Terminal and the performances at Music Hall should pay a little extra to help fund the repairs.

 

Portune said he and supporters of the "icon tax" have not reached agreement about how much should be added to the cost of tickets and how that extra money should be used.

"We crossed a bridge in terms of getting agreement to include it," he said. "But the next bridge we need to cross in terms of how much it needs to be – I'm still on one side of the river, and they're on the other."

Portune argues that the user fees should generate about $1.25 million annually – with about $415,000 coming from Music Hall patrons each year and $835,000 coming from guests of the Museum Center.

His proposal would add a surcharge of $1.80 to tickets that range in price from $21 to $40 for events at Music Hall. The surcharge would increase as the ticket prices increase, with tickets that are $120 or more each having a surcharge of $5.75 per ticket.

Free tickets and those that cost $20 or less would be exempt from the surcharge under Portune's proposal.

Portune couldn't offer specific examples for how the surcharge would work at the Museum Center. But he said he believes firmly that a ticket surcharge should be added for all the Museum Center's attractions, even special exhibitions.

Museum Center Vice President Elizabeth Pierce said supporters of the task force's recommendations don't oppose a user fee. But they don't think that money should be used for the $331 million in repairs and renovations that the sales tax would help fund.

"Everybody's in agreement that if we can come up with a user fee that makes sense that doesn't harm the institutions or organizations within, that will create dollars that can be used for the ongoing maintenance," Pierce said.

That could be a sticking point for the commissioners.

Portune said he thinks user fees should help pay for the big project – not just ongoing maintenance. And he's not alone in that opinion.

Where Monzel Stands

In an email to his fellow commissioners, Hamilton County Commission President Chris Monzel wrote that user fees should be used "as a portion of the construction costs as well as long-term maintenance costs."

In that email, Monzel suggested two options for how to move forward on the issue:

 

• Put the expiring property tax levy for Cincinnati Museum Center back on the ballot for one year. The task force recommended ending the levy if the sales tax increase went on the ballot. But Monzel said giving the Museum Center one more year of operating support through the levy would give commissioners time to review the larger proposal more thoroughly.

• Remove Music Hall from the proposal and focus only on Union Terminal.

He argued in the email that the county has never "had any relationship with the City of Cincinnati's Music Hall." The county has, on the other hand, helped support the Museum Center and Union Terminal for many years.

Without sales tax proceeds, Monzel predicted that the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., known as 3CDC, and the Music Hall Revitalization Company would be able to find a way to get the money they need to fund the project – possibly in part through naming rights.

"We also need to trim down the proposed budget for Union Terminal by removing those project costs that are not necessary to the restoration of the building, " he wrote.

Supporters of the Cultural Facilities Task Force plan balked at both ideas in statements to WCPO.

Otto Budig Jr. wrote that a plan "that delays efforts and addresses only Union Terminal is financially irresponsible."

That idea would result in "virtually all of the philanthropic funding" – nearly $40 million worth – being withdrawn, added Budig, chairman of the Music Hall Revitalization Company.

Delay also would add cost to the project because it would result in more damage and deterioration to the buildings and "endangers the future of all the organizations housed within that are used by over 1.5 million citizens each year," wrote Wick Ach, a member of the task force and CEO of Hixson, an architecture firm.

Where Hartmann Stands

Commissioner Greg Hartmann has plenty of questions about the proposal, too.

In an email to County Administrator Christian Sigman, he listed six outstanding issues.

 

"I have not made a decision regarding my support to allow a sales tax levy to be placed on the ballot, primarily because of the outstanding questions I still have regarding the proposal," Hartmann wrote.

His questions relate to:

Ownership of the facilities. The city of Cincinnati owns both Music Hall and Union Terminal. Hartmann said he wants clarification about who would own the buildings after the restoration project and who would be responsible for long-term maintenance costs.

Construction management of the project. He wants details on how construction management of the project would work.

Protection from cost overruns. He wants to know how the county could be protected if the project costs more than expected.

Dalton Street repairs. Hartmann wants to know if roughly $11 million worth of repairs to Dalton Street could be removed from the project.

Hines report. The county and its Tax Levy Review Committee hired the Hines engineering firm to review the task force's work. Hines estimated the total project would cost about $10 million more than the task force did. Hartmann wants to see those two estimates reconciled.

User fee. Like Monzel and Portune, Hartman wants to know if user fee revenue would be better used for the upfront renovation costs instead of for long-term maintenance.

Pierce said some of the Dalton Street work could be deferred. But for that to happen the city would need to sign an agreement to amend its lease with the Museum Center and take back financial responsibility for the Dalton Street tunnel and bridge structures, she said.

Negotiations Continue

Pierce said she doesn't think icon tax supporters will like the idea of channeling user fees to help fund the cost of the $331 million restoration project.

Financial experts on the task force have determined that any user fee big enough to put a dent in the construction costs would be so large that they would damage the nonprofits that call Union Terminal and Music Hall home. That's why task force members prefer to use any user fee revenues to cover ongoing maintenance of the buildings.

Bottom line:  Talks between the business and community leaders who want to see the icon tax move forward and the commissioners who can make that happen likely will continue through the weekend, she said.

"The details of the user fee are still being ironed out, and there are a number of different ways to come at it," Pierce said.

Portune said he thinks it's still possible to create a proposal that he could support.

"Everybody understands what I'm looking for and what I'm working at," he said. "If there's a will, it can easily be bridged."

Whether one of the other two commissioners will agree could be more complicated.

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

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