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Was $200K Park Board donation legal?

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Posted at 9:41 PM, Oct 13, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-13 21:41:15-04

CINCINNATI – Parties are sounding off over allegations that the city Park Board made an illegal $200,000 contribution to the campaign seeking to pass a charter amendment to fund the parks through a perpetual property tax.

Tim Mara, a local tax watchdog and attorney who leads the anti-levy group "Save Our Parks," initially accused the board Tuesday of making the illegal contribution in a letter to parks director Willie Carden, Jr. Now, Mara is demanding that the Park Board immediately recover the $200,000.

READ Mara's letter here or below.

Mara also demanded minutes from 2015 Park Board meetings, claiming Carden failed to provide them upon his request Monday.

Carden fired back, however, calling Mara's letter "wrong." 

"There were no public funds given toward the levy," Carden told WCPO. "Moreover, the Park Board made the donation directly to a 501(c)(4)."

In a statement issued Tuesday, Board of Parks Commissioners President Otto M. Budig confirmed the $200,000 donation was made to Great Parks, Great Neighborhoods, Inc., a 501(c)(4) nonprofit dedicated to "support(ing) Cincinnati parks and neighborhoods."

"There was no donation from the Cincinnati Board of Park Commissioners to the Issue 22 contribution," Budig said.

Budig went on to add that the funds were discretionary private dollars from the Helen Meyer Trust given to the Park Board for the beautification of the city's parks and that none of the $200,000 were tax dollars.

If voters pass Issue 22, the amendment would establish a permanent tax increase designed to generate $5-6 million a year for the Park Board.  

"It is our belief that these facts provide ample assurance that no public funds were used in making the donation from the private trust to the 501(c)(4)," Budig said.

Mayor John Cranley is leading the charge for Issue 22, making a plea in a TV commercial where he "plays" football and basketball in a park and also portrays an umpire and a cheering fan. "Every park will benefit,”  says Cranley. The levy would deliver a $152 million impact on the local economy in its first 10 years, according to a study released by the University of Cincinnati's Economic Center.

Mara, though, called the findings “exaggerated" and said Cranley is “raising money in the name of preserving parks that will be used to destroy them.” He says the levy lacks key details such as how many trees will be preserved across neighborhood parks undergoing makeovers.

Mara came to the forefront as a tax watchdog in the 1990s as a vocal - and lone - public opponent of using taxpayer money to finance Paul Brown Stadium.

Tax revenues would be used to step up maintenance at all city parks, make over 11 neighborhood parks and create four new urban trails to pave the way for bike and pedestrian connections across the city to downtown.

The city-wide property tax would cost about $35 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.