Judge continues long court hearing on Cincinnati's billboard tax until Friday

Judge continues long court hearing on Cincinnati's billboard tax until Friday
Posted at 11:45 AM, Sep 10, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-10 11:45:07-04

CINCINNATI - A judge will continue to hear arguments on Friday about whether to ban the city of Cincinnati from collecting a new billboard tax.

Attorneys for two of the city’s biggest billboard companies, Norton Outdoor Advertising and Lamar Advertising, sued the city in July alleging the city violated the constitutional right to free speech and the tax was unfair.

Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Judge Curt Hartman temporarily halted the billboard tax on July 30.

At a court hearing on Sept. 7, attorneys for both sides argued about whether the judge should issue a preliminary injunction and place the tax on hold until the court case ends, possibly in several years. That court hearing lasted all day, but is not yet finished. It will continue on Friday.

In the meantime, Hartman continued the temporary restraining order through Sept. 21.

“Given the judge’s language in the (temporary restraining order), I would be surprised if he changed his decision at the preliminary injunction stage,” said city Councilman David Mann in an interview last week. “We have a hole in the budget we have to address.”

Acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney estimated the size of that budget hole to be $837,000.

“Various jurisdictions around the state have a tax on billboards. We don’t. We became aware of that,” Mann said. “The city solicitor said it’s a lawful tax and we implemented it. And those that operate billboards would prefer not to have it.”

To help balance a $32 million shortfall, city council passed a budget in June containing a host of taxes and fee increases, including a hefty billboard tax hike to be paid by people who own billboards.

But the judge believes the billboard tax is “a direct tax on the means of engaging in speech. The tax is effectively no different than a tax specifically targeted to being imposed on news print or a print press used to produce newspapers,” according to his July 30 order.

If Hartman doesn’t change his mind, city leaders may have tough budget negotiations in the coming weeks.

“The administration is seeking direction from the mayor and city council on budget changes to address the FY 2019 budget shortfall,” Duhaney wrote in an Aug. 15 memo. “In the meantime, the execution of contracts associated with the billboard excise tax ordinance will be delayed until the issue is resolved in court.”

To fill the budget gap, Mayor John Cranley proposed $159,000 in funding cuts to CincyTech, Cintrifuse, and the Hillman Accelerator. But the biggest cut -- $550,000 -- would be for the Center for Closing the Health Gap, a nonprofit that has been the subject of a city audit and media scrutiny for how it spends taxpayer dollars.

“Its just not something that government money should be spent on, especially in light of the questions raised by the audit and the reporting which questions whether they are even delivering what they promise under the city contract,” Cranley said. “It’s just not an essential service of city funding.”

Mann is hopeful that once the final budget adjustment ordinance becomes available next week, it will show the city has extra money to restore funding to those projects.