Transit board: No sales tax money will go to streetcar in 'any way, shape or form'

Posted at 12:08 PM, Dec 09, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-10 10:38:44-05

CINCINNATI — Hamilton County voters can now see precisely how the transit authority will pitch its proposed sales tax increase next year, and the authority's board is working hard to let voters know: None of the money will go toward the streetcar.

"No money, in any way, shape or form, for any purpose" from the proposed 0.8 percent sales tax levy will go to finance the Cincinnati Bell Connector, Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees Chairman Kreg Keesee said during Tuesday morning's meeting.

The SORTA board Tuesday morning approved specific ballot language regarding its proposed sales tax increase to boost funding for Cincinnati Metro bus services and related road and bridge projects.

WCPO obtained a copy of that ballot language Monday, and it reads:

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) proposes to levy a sales and use tax in the amount of eight-tenths of one percent for a period of twenty-five years. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds of the levy shall be used for public infrastructure projects, like building or maintaining roads or bridges; and seventy-five percent of the proceeds shall provide general revenues for operating the Metro transportation system. None of the levy money shall be used for the Cincinnati Streetcar. If this tax is approved, the City of Cincinnati earnings tax will be reduced by three-tenths of one percent according to the City's Charter.

Shall a sales and use tax be levied at a rate not exceeding eight tenths of one percent for a period of twenty-five years by the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) for the purposes of public infrastructure projects, like the construction and maintenance of roads or bridges related to the provision of SORTA's service, and providing general revenues for the use of SORTA?

The SORTA Board voted to put a sales tax levy on the ballot in March of 2020 at a special meeting on Sept. 30. All but one of the board's 13 members voted in favor of pursuing the sales tax increase. Advocates estimate the 0.8 percent rate could generate as much as $130 million annually.

"It's a culmination of many years of work based on feedback throughout the community," Keesee said. "We're confident we have a winning proposal."

The ballot language addresses two questions that have lingered around the proposed tax hike in recent months: How long will the tax levy be in place, and could any of the revenue be used to finance streetcar operations?

The ballot language does not specify which road and bridge projects would receive funding from the 25 percent of revenue allocated for infrastructure improvements, nor does it specify who would allocate those funds. Officials with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce told WCPO those decisions would be made by the local Ohio Public Works Commission Integrating Committee -- an appointed board consisting of nine Hamilton County-based members selected by local elected officials, as is stipulated by the Ohio Revised Code.

By the Chamber's estimate, roughly $1 billion in road and bridge projects, would qualify as "related to the provision of SORTA's service."

Leaders in the Hamilton County GOP had expressed concern over the sales tax levy including a sunset provision.

"I think that anything that's going to be put on the taxpayer’s back at that amount, there needs to be a sunset provision that at least lets voters reevaluate after five, 10 years," said Andy Black, a member of the county's Republican Party, following voter approval last month of a Cincinnati City Charter amendment that would roll back a portion of the city's earnings tax if voters approval a sales tax hike in 2020.

Under its current funding structure, Cincinnati Metro receives roughly half of its $100 million annual budget from 0.3 percent of the city's tax on earned income. It has no county-wide funding mechanism in place.

This version of the ballot language sets a limit on the sales tax levy for a quarter-century, but Keesee said it could be reevaluated before that time.

"Really the balance here is that we know that we want to be held accountable for providing service that the county wants and needs," Keesee said. "But we also need a length of time that allows us to use the funds on longer-term projects."

At its November meeting the Board voted to initiate proceedings that would hand over streetcar management oversight from the transit authority to the city of Cincinnati. Corresponding legislation that would initiate a "mutual termination agreement" is on Cincinnati Council's calendar, dated Dec. 10, but it still awaits lawmakers' approval. City Council approved in September what many considered to be the first step toward the so-called streetcar "divorce," when it approved funding for an internal streetcar safety officer.

Under its current management structure, the city owns the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar, transit operations firm Transdev manages the system, and SORTA oversees Transdev's operations on the city's behalf.

Over the last 50 years, Hamilton County voters have rejected four attempts to levy a sales and use tax for public transit services.