Judge hears arguments on city's parking lease, but will decide later

CINCINNATI - A judge heard arguments Friday morning about whether voters should decide the future of Cincinnati-owned parking.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Winkler listened to attorneys from both sides in the dispute make their case but made no decision.

Winkler said he should study the arguments and rule soon.

City Council approved leasing Cincinnati's parking system to the Port Authority on March 6. A group of citizens immediately filed a complaint alleging that council added an emergency clause to the ordinance solely to thwart a voter referendum.

Winkler issued a temporary injunction minutes after council's approval and – after a brief detour through federal court – the case landed back in his courtroom.

A group of citizens led by Price Hill resident Pete Witte wants a permanent injunction to prevent the city's lease from taking effect until a referendum is held.

In preparation for a referendum, lease opponents have collected about 3,100 signatures from city voters in four days. If their lawsuit is successful, the group will need about 8,500 signatures to force the issue on the ballot.

During Friday's court hearing, an attorney for the plaintiffs said the city's charter gives residents the right to a referendum on virtually any legislative issue.

Attorney Curt Hartman said Article 2, Section 3 of the charter preserves right of referendum.

"This court cannot, by law, insert words into the charter that are not there," Hartman told the judge. ""No ifs, ands or buts. The charter says what it says."

The four attorneys representing the city of Cincinnati alleged that although charters generally defer to state law on most issues, Cincinnati's charter was specifically amended by voters in 1994 to give council more discretion about the use of emergency clauses.

The parking lease was an emergency because, without it, the city is facing a deficit that will result in "budget cuts, personnel layoffs and reductions in city services," said Assistant City Solicitor Terry Nestor.

The lease of the city of Cincinnati's parking system will generate more than a half-billion dollars in revenue over 40 years, with roughly half going to the city.

The lease of Cincinnati's parking meters, lots and garages to the Port Authority is estimated to yield a total of $570.7 million, according to the city's financial consultant.

Under the deal, the city will get an upfront payment of $92 million, along with annual payments that begin at $3 million and increase gradually over time.

The net present value of the lease for the city is $197.4 million.

With the money, city administrators would cover a nearly $26 million deficit in the budget and jumpstart several development projects including construction of a luxury apartment building downtown.

To pay the city and finance improvements to the system, the Port Authority will issue bonds backed by Guggenheim Partners, a New York-based investment bank.

The Port would hire Xerox Services to oversee the parking meters, and hire Denison Parking to operate the garages and lots. In turn, the two companies would hire local employees.

Lease supporters say the deal will help the city grow its tax base.

With the large projects funded by the parking plan, it could generate $15.1 million in extra tax revenue by 2016 if it sparks just 1 percent growth above the current level, Dohoney said.

But critics have countered that it lessens public accountability for the assets, and fear that increases in parking rates will hurt small businesses.


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