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Here are key issues to watch when Democrats take control of Hamilton County Commission

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Nov 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-21 06:13:33-05

CINCINNATI -- Democrats are plotting to wrangle in sewer rates for the poorest residents, spend more on luring businesses to the area, expand Greater Cincinnati’s role in regional transportation and work with city leaders to create a housing court when they take over the Hamilton County Commission in January.

It’s the first time in six years Democrats have loosened the Republican’s conservative grip on the three-member commission. And it means changes are in store for how the county’s roughly $1.2 billion yearly operating budget for offices such as the sheriff, children’s service s agency and sewers are spent. 

Next year’s budget – and therefore, many of its priorities – will still be decided by the Republican-controlled commission this year but things are expected to change quickly once Democrat Denise Driehaus takes office in January. 

Driehaus has unofficially won her race against incumbent Dennis Deters; official results are expected next week but many Republicans have already resigned themselves to a Democratic-led board.

Here are key issues to watch when Democrats take control. 

Sewer rates and disputes

While sewer rates have skyrocketed over the last decade, city and county leaders have bickered over how to manage the Metropolitan Sewer District.

Driehaus frequently chided the Republican-controlled commission on the campaign trail for not acting fast enough on financial aid programs to help the poorest of residents pay their bills. At a debate hosted earlier this year by WCPO, she said developing new programs would be a top priority if she took office.

She and Democrat Todd Portune are likely to establish some sort of sewer bill assistance program for low-income ratepayers or people who have fallen on sudden hardship, such as job loss or home foreclosure. Those were changes a sewer rate affordability taskforce recommended earlier this year, but Driehaus and Portune accused Republicans of dragging their feet to make the changes.

“It’s a matter of looking at those recommendations more quickly and more aggressively and see if we can move forward,” Driehaus said.

Also expect the way city and county leaders debate the future of the sewer district to change.

The county claims ownership of the sewer district but the city manages it. The 50-year agreement that set up that marriage ends in 2018 – and in the past, county Republicans have suggested that they wouldn’t mind a divorce from the city. But, with Democrats now in charge at both the Cincinnati City Council and at the Hamilton County Commission, negotiations could turn friendlier.

“There was a lack of trust between the city and the county due to partisan viewpoints,” Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, a Democrat, said. “We’re not going to have that impediment out of the gate on everything.” 

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley agreed, adding that the last time Democrats held the majority on City Council and the county commission, the two bodies got a lot more accomplished. 

“They don’t view the city as the enemy, they view the city as a partner, so I think that’s going to be a very refreshing attitude that will create the opportunity for a negotiated settlement (on MSD)," Cranley said. 

County and city leaders cannot discuss details of the sewer agreement’s negotiations or where it stands, but Republicans fear a Democrat-controlled commission could lead to the county siding with the city more often.

“That is a concern,” Hamilton County Commissioner – and soon-to-be-lone Republican – Chris Monzel said. “Time will tell. It’s going to be interesting to see how the majority will handle those next steps for the future.”

Should the county help local businesses?

Portune has long begged Republican commissioners to spend more money getting potential business sites ready for companies to relocate to the area. And, in campaign ads, Driehaus promised to be a better partner with local businesses.

Translation: Expect Democrats to spend more time – and money – on luring new businesses and revitalizing existing ones here in Hamilton County.

She wants to see the county look at loans, grants or direct spending to help businesses interested in settling or redeveloping here. Her hope is to tap into local, state and private funds as well for investment opportunities.

“From what I know, there’s some frustration that the county hasn’t invested enough,” Driehaus said. “There are ways to get organizations, governments or private banks to get them all together so we’re working in conjunction together.”

Portune wants to pay to get more county sites ready for new businesses and spend money on job training programs for county residents through a tax collected from casino revenues. He’d also like the county to develop a plan of what neighborhoods, cities and townships they’d like to target for redevelopment in the coming years.

But Monzel questions where they’ll find the funds to spend more cash.

“To me, it definitely sounds like they want to play a much bigger role,” Monzel said of economic development efforts. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be what money is available – if there is any.”

Transportation

Both Driehaus and Portune said they want the county to play a bigger role in transportation, but still don’t have a firm idea of what that will look like.

They want to reach out to neighboring counties to see how to collaborate on regional transit.

“Effective transportation is not just moving people through Hamilton County; it’s connecting the entire region,” Portune said.

Both Portune and Driehaus said they want to be more involved with the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, which oversees the regional bus system and operates the city’s streetcar. The county commission handpicks six people to control the transit authority’s board and once the Democrats take control, those appointments will likely to look different.

“We need to take a look at SORTA,” Driehaus said. “We need to have people on that board that are forward-thinking.”

How to help county’s most vulnerable kids?

Driehaus believes it was a mistake for the Republican-controlled commission to keep levy funding for children’s services agency flat again, for the fourth time in 20 years. The agency cares for the county’s poorest, neglected, abused and displaced kids.

“Had I been sitting there with all of the information they had, I would have had the citizens decide whether they wanted to fund a slight increase,” Driehaus said. “I’m just so certain the people would have supported it.”

County commissioners had already planned to re-evaluate the children’s services levy – in two years, instead of five – to avoid a cash shortfall. A different levy, one that could raise taxes, will definitely be up for discussion in two years, Portune said.

“Reviewing it earlier … I believe there is likely to be a willingness to do that,” Portune said.
 

A county housing court

One of Cranley's top priorities for 2017 is creating a county housing court -- an idea that he said will be helped with Driehaus and newly-elected Democratic Clerk of Court Aftab Pureval on his side.

The new full-time housing court would fight blight and absentee slumlords. Cleveland and Columbus both have housing courts, and the idea has widespread support here. So far Cranley hasn't found anyone who is opposed to the idea, but the details and the budget must still be worked out. It could take a year for the court to be operational, since the state General Assembly must first pass a law creating the court. 

“The big picture is: We’re heading there and I think we’re going to get there," Cranley said. "The fact that Aftab and Denise are here makes it even more likely.”