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The pros and cons of the Cincinnati parks levy

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Posted at 7:36 AM, Oct 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-20 07:36:28-04

Issue 22 on the Cincinnati ballot would add 1 mill to the city's property tax and use the revenue to maintain Cincinnati parks and nature preserves and build new ones. We asked leaders from both sides to weigh in.

YES: 'Issue 22 is a game changer for Cincinnati'

By Brewster Rhoads, co-chair of Citizens for Cincinnati Parks.

Cincinnati is blessed with amazing parks. The National Trust for Public Land rated our system “excellent” and said it is among America’s best. Cincinnati’s 113 parks and nature preserves comprise 5,000 acres, more than 10 percent of Cincinnati. It’s huge!

But here’s the problem that Issue 22 will fix. Our parks are aging. Half of the 135 structures in our parks are over 70 years old, many built during the Depression by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Brewster Rhoads

Tight city budgets have not kept pace with critical capital maintenance needs, which now total over $50 million. Leaky roofs, outdated electrical and plumbing systems, and crumbling retaining walls are issues of age and resources, not neglect. And some now pose safety threats to children and families.

Issue 22 is a game changer for the vitality of our neighborhoods, the physical and mental health of our citizens and our ability to attract and retain the talented workforce Cincinnati needs to thrive.

Just like the Smale Commission charter amendment in 1988 created a permanent earnings tax to maintain Cincinnati’s roads and bridges, Issue 22 provides a permanent funding stream – just like Delhi, Anderson and Symmes townships have for their parks - to maintain and upgrade our existing parks and to kick start the construction of a world-class hike and bike trail network.

Good for the Neighborhoods

Imagine a 30-plus mile off road trail system with Wasson Way, the Ohio River Oasis Trail, the Mill Creek Trail and the Ohio River West Trail connecting more than 40 of our neighborhoods to our Cincinnati parks – and to each other.

By making improvements in our local parks and building bike trails, Issue 22 will bring to our neighborhoods the revitalization that Washington Park and the Smale Riverfront Park have brought to OTR and downtown.

Checks and Balances

A word about checks and balance. The park board will design the park and trail projects in collaboration with community councils, park advisory boards and neighborhood stakeholders to be sure they reflect the priorities of each neighborhood. The park board will have total control over all levy dollars and manage the projects. City Council must vote to fund them, that is  their critical role in this process. If a majority of council members feel that a park improvement or trail project is flawed, they can reject the issuance of the bonds and send it back to the park board for revision.

So let’s be clear. No park improvement or trail construction project will go forward unless the park board, City Council and the mayor all agree that it should.

Finally, regardless of what you think of our mayor – and I was on the other side in that election - Issue 22 is a game changer for Cincinnati. It will be the legacy we leave for generations to come.

The picnic grounds at Burnet Woods

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NO: 'Bad government and bad for our parks'

By Don Mooney, a Cincinnati attorney and treasurer of Save Our Parks.

Issue 22, the Charter amendment that would add a permanent 1 mill tax for Cincinnati homeowners, is bad government and bad for our precious city parks.

Issue 22 is bad government because it gives one politician, already running for re-election, unprecedented control over an $80 million slush fund that can be exploited to lubricate his path to re-election.

Don Mooney

The charter amendment that Mayor Cranley has devised gives solely to the mayor the power to recommend the “capital budget” for which the park board can spend 75 percent of the proceeds of this $5 million-a-year tax. The revenue stream from the tax will finance $80 million in bonds to pay for a variety of “projects” the Mayor has already announced without City Council input.

The projects have been cleverly selected to appeal to a broad swath of corporate and community constituencies that just happen to be important to his path to re-election. The park board will be able to change his plans only with his approval.

Too Much Power for the Mayor

Our city charter provides for a nine-member council to set city spending priorities, and an independent park board to keep politics out of a treasured city resource. The mayor’s amendment forces the park board to follow the mayor’s direction on capital spending, and cuts out our politically and racially diverse City Council from any meaningful part in deciding how to spend $80 million of our tax dollars. No wonder only three members of City Council support this charter amendment.

Even worse, many of the proposals the mayor has floated to sell this amendment to voters, and to earn the support of corporations financing the expensive campaign ads flooding the airwaves, will actually hurt our parks.

Announced plans for restaurants and beer gardens in lush urban refuges like Burnet Woods and Mt. Airy Forest will replace acres of trees with parking lots and pavement. The proposed commercial exploitation of our parks is shameless.

But this should come as no surprise from a mayor who last year called all those trees in Burnet Woods “creepy.” He may be surprised to learn that my Clifton neighbors actually cherish those trees. We would rather have the full City Council, not just the mayor and the University of Cincinnati (which has long eyed Burnet Woods for expansion) decide how or whether Burnet Woods needs to be “re-invented.”

Less Green, More Pavement

Plans to spend $5 million in taxpayer dollars on downtown’s Lytle Park would create a sterile corporate front yard for financial backers of the mayor and Issue 22, at the expense of the public and history. There is less green, and much more pavement. The park will be nice to look down on from adjoining offices and hotels, but not nearly as nice as the current park to sit in for lunch or to read a book. Amazingly, the Cranley Plan for Lytle Park literally pushes the majestic statue of Abraham Lincoln  aside to the far eastern edge of the park, away from the Park’s Fourth Street entrance, where he has stood for generations. The statute, a 1917 gift from the Taft family, commemorates Lincoln’s Cincinnati visit before he became one of our greatest presidents. Is the great Republican liberator too controversial for today’s corporate barons?

No wonder a broad and diverse coalition of Cincinnatians, including former council members Jim Tarbell and Marian Spencer, current council members Yvette Simpson, Charlie Winburn and Amy Murray, the Audubon Society, Cincinnatians for Progress and COAST are joining Save Our Parks to vote “No On 22.”