Local levies may get lost under the shadow of a controversial presidential race

Posted at 6:00 AM, Aug 26, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-30 13:00:19-04

Tucked at the bottom of the November ballot, far below the intense presidential race and a high-stakes U.S. Senate battle, are three Hamilton County levies to help abused and neglected children, county parks and public schools and preschool.

Will voters even notice them?

One of the risks of putting a local levy on the ballot during a presidential election year is that it gets lost in widespread campaign noise. It is also tremendously expensive to buy advertising, and campaigns have to run more spots just to get noticed.

“It’s a presidential election and a big media market and a swing state,” said Jared Kamrass, a principal at Rivertown Strategies political consulting firm. “It’s very expensive to cut through a lot of the noise you will hear this year.”

With two historically unpopular presidential candidates -- Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton -- who are constantly criticizing one other, it may be exceptionally hard for voters to hear about local issues.

“With the presidential race and a top tier senate race, the airwaves are going to be cluttered. It’s tough,” said Jamie Schwartz, a consultant at Fountain Square Group who is working on the Great Parks of Hamilton County levy campaign.

“The benefit with an issue campaign is the positive message,” Schwartz said. “It’s a lot different than mudslinging back and forth with a presidential campaign.”

But a positive message only goes so far when it comes to motivating voters.

Normally a presidential election year is the best time to put a levy on the ballot because of high voter turnout that usually leans more liberal.

Yet turnout this fall is questionable because neither presidential candidate is particularly well liked by voters. Will this encourage voter turnout or smother it?

“We don’t know, we just don’t know,” said Nick Vehr, president of Vehr Communications, a Cincinnati firm that advises on ballot issue campaigns.

“How that translates down ticket is the big question,” Vehr said. “No one has a clear answer because this has never happened before in our lifetimes.”

So campaign managers for local levies are pushing ahead with optimism -- and a little uncertainty.

Here's a look at some of the levies that will be on the ballot in November: 

Great parks

“We’ll promote our issue number loud and proud, and hope people will be able to find it on the ballot,” said Schwartz, who hopes voters approve a 1 mill replacement levy for county parks.

Great Parks, which manages 21 parks and nature preserves countywide, is seeking the levy to help with big projects such as dredging Sharon Lake and extending the Little Miami Bike Trail. It would cost owners of a $100,000 home $35 per year.


Great Parks of Hamilton County leaders are preparing to dredge Sharon Lake in the coming years. It's a costly procedure but will ensure the lake can be used for recreation.

That levy isn’t facing opposition from the usual anti-tax crowd.

“I’m very, very supportive of the Great Parks levy,” said Tim Mara, an attorney who led the effort against the city park levy in 2015. “It’s a very small levy and they seem to do lot with a very small amount of money.”

But supporters worry if voters will be able to differentiate between the failed city parks campaign and the county parks levy this year.

Some confusion “is unavoidable” Schwartz said. But a cornerstone of the Great Parks campaign will be touting its good financial management.

The campaign is hoping to raise several hundred thousand dollars to fund an aggressive early vote effort, and social media, digital and television advertising, plus an army of door-knocking volunteers.


Great Parks protects 17,000 acres of greenspace in Hamilton County.


Children’s Services

Ryan Braun knows that he is promoting perhaps the easiest levy on the county ballot this year – a renewal tax to protect abused and neglected children.

But Braun, of Mainstream Strategy who is campaign manager for the Children’s Services levy, is still worried about voter turnout.

“The whole presidential election does make things a little bit abnormal and I’m less sure about who is going to turn out,” Braun said. “That’s probably my biggest concern, who will actually turn out.”

The renewal levy would bring in $39 million annually, plus matching state and federal funds, to help abused and neglected children. It costs the owner of a $100,000 home $56.27.

The campaign has a simple message – protecting children -- and a lean budget of hopefully $250,000 in private donations, Braun said.

The 10-year replacement levy would bring $39 million to help abused and neglected children.

 Braun hopes voters will be moved by the stories of children who made it through the system and emerged as successful adults. He’ll rely on direct mail, billboards, digital ads, social media and less expensive online radio.

With such a sympathetic issue, even tax foes are predicting an easy win in November.

“I think the Children’s Services levy will be a slam dunk with voters,” said Don Mooney, a Democratic activist who was a vocal opponent of the city parks levy last year.

Cincinnati Public Schools and Preschool Promise

This levy campaign may be the toughest sell because it asks for the most money -- $48 million annually.

Vehr estimates that a campaign this size will easily cost more than $1 million. A good benchmark, he said, is the failed city parks levy campaign which raised $1.2 million in 2015.

“It’s the most expensive real estate on earth,” Vehr said of presidential-year advertising. “The challenge is you have to break through the clutter to communicate your message to people so they are aware and will go that far down the ballot to vote.”

Brewster Rhoads, co-chairman of the school levy campaign, did not know how much will be raised to persuade voters to expand preschool and fund public schools.

“Ultimately what I am convinced makes a difference are real human beings knocking on doors in neighborhoods,” Rhoads said. “I’m confident we’ll be a position to be able to run real bang-up grassroots campaign.”

Rhoads needs more than 2,000 volunteers to knock on doors and make heartfelt phone calls to neighbors about the levy.


The Cincinnati Public Schools combined with Preschool Promise for a $48 million levy.

If approved, the nearly 8 mill levy will dramatically expand preschool and fill a projected K-12 deficit.

“The CPS/Preschool Promise levy is the big gorilla in the room,” Mara said. “That’s a different story than the other two. I think it will have a very hard time passing. It’s a new tax and very large tax, and I think it will be very hard for people to swallow." 

But supporters hope to frame this as a moral crusade and an urgent vote against childhood poverty.

“Will all the levies pass? I don’t know, it’s too soon to say,” Kamrass said. “The die has not been cast on what the election looks like. But everyone is feeling bullish at their chances right now."