Cincinnati's parking lease on fast track for vote

Could be decided 15 days after introduction

CINCINNATI - Cincinnati City Council appears poised to vote on a proposal to lease its parking system to the Port Authority just 15 days after it was unveiled publicly.

Council held its second public hearing on the proposal Wednesday night. Near the session's end, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls indicated the matter would go before council's Finance Committee March 4.

If the committee recommends approval, the full council would likely vote on the proposal two days later, on March 6.

The proposal, introduced Feb. 19, calls for leasing the city's parking meters for 30 years, and leasing the city's parking lots and garages for up to 50 years.

In return, the city would receive an upfront payment of $92 million from the Port Authority. Also, it would get annual payments that would begin at $3 million and gradually increase over time.

Many residents who spoke at Wednesday night's hearing said too many unanswered questions remain about the deal, and council shouldn't rush into such a long-term agreement.

Mark Rogers, an Oakley business owner, said community support for the deal is lacking.

"There are only six people in this room who support this," Rogers told council, referring to its members. "What in the heck are you doing?"

Another resident who spoke told City Council he thought it was "under some sort of evil spirit." The man then recited the Lord's Prayer to cleanse council chambers.

But supporters insist the deal will help avoid a $26 million deficit in the city's budget, while also quickening the pace of several development projects downtown and elsewhere. That, in turn, will add jobs and increase the city's tax base, they said.

Although no council members have yet committed to the deal, it appears to have tentative support from Qualls, Laure Quinlivan, Yvette Simpson, Cecil Thomas and Wendell Young – all Democrats.

Democrats P.G. Sittenfield and Chris Seelbach are undecided; Republican Charlie Winburn and independent Christopher Smitherman are opposed.

The proposal needs five votes for passage. If it is approved by six votes or more, it cannot be subject to voter referendum.

Sittenfield said council is moving too quickly on a deal of this magnitude. Members should have one month for review before making a decision, he added.

After the proposal's supporters criticized some members for allegedly not offering alternatives for solving the city's deficit, opponents fired back.

"I just want to be clear: Council members have submitted different plans about how to deal with the budget crisis," Smitherman said.

Council's Democratic majority never places those plans on the Finance Committee's agenda, he added.

One of the counter-proposals is using tax revenues generated by the new Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati to avoid the shortfall.

Seelbach noted, however, "That doesn't fill the deficit. It gets close."

City administrators also presented calculations about how much parking meter rates would increase over time under the proposal.

Under most circumstances, it would limit rate hikes to either 3 percent annually or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is higher.

That means meter rates in neighborhoods would increase to $1 in 2019, and $1.25 in 2027, if the schedule is followed.

Also, meter rates downtown would increase to $2.25 per hour in 2016; $2.50 in 2019; $2.75 in 2023; and $3 in 2026.

City officials said the contractor would have block-by-block flexibility to adjust rates, if lower rates or free parking were needed for a special event.

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