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Many Motives Behind Issue 9

Debate over greater voter input versus blocking economic development

By Joe Wessels · October 28th, 2009 · News

It might take a lesson in understanding games of logic to understand all the various aspects surrounding Issue 9.

Here’s how it begins: There is an issue on the ballot this November called Issue 9. One side that’s interested in the topic says it's about stopping wasteful spending; the other side insists it’s about saving Cincinnati jobs.

If you vote “no” on the ballot item, you will support building a streetcar system, but that’s not the overarching issue. It’s really about economic development and possibly building another type of train system that connects major cities and would be mostly federally funded, says people against Issue 9.

If you vote “yes,” however, it would be nearly impossible for Cincinnati City Council to independently fund anything that travels on any type of rail, up to and possibly including the train at the Cincinnati Zoo. City streets, however, might be safer because there could be more cops on the streets, counter Issue 9 supporters.

In reality, voting “yes” cannot make the streets safer because the money for a proposed streetcar can only be spent on capital projects — things that are built — not operating expenses, which fund personnel budgets, according to city officials.

But voting “no” would spur economic development, Issue 9 opponents allege, making some of the city’s crime-ridden neighborhoods much safer and more desirable to live in, along with attracting new businesses and creating jobs.

It sounds convoluted — and it is. The correct answer, political experts say, might be “all of the above.”

“It is one of the most complicated issues,” says Gene Beaupre, Xavier University’s director of government relations and a political scientist who is an expert in Cincinnati politics. He believes putting issues like this on a ballot is unwise.

“I think there are many issues that people should be involved in with government. People should be involved in electing legislators. They should be involved in monitoring the government. They should be involved in issues and follow issues,” Beaupre says. “There are occasions to put something on the ballot. But the outline of negotiations to formulate a policy that is respectful to all points of view does not happen with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote on the ballot.”

Polling in the race, sources say, shows voters as recently as a few weeks ago were statistically tied on supporting or opposing Issue 9.

Whether governing by ballot measure is a good idea has been central to the philosophy, although not necessarily the arguments put forth in campaign messages, of Cincinnatians for Progress.

Organizers of the group support building a streetcar but have instead focused on the view that “government by ballot measure” is ineffective and harmful.

The organization gathered a bipartisan crop of current and former legislators, including Democratic State Rep. Denise Driehaus and Republican and ex-Ohio Senate President Stan Aronoff, for a press conference where all called Issue 9 a bad idea. The group has raised about $90,000 through business and individual contributions.

“We would not have this campaign, with the successful coalition building and the dollars that we are raising, if it would have been about the streetcar,” says Bobby Maly, co-chairman of Cincinnatians for Progress and vice president of Model Group, a development company with projects along the proposed streetcar route in Over-the-Rhine. “I think Issue 9 is about what kind of city we want to be.”

What is at stake, according to the ballot language, is the city’s ability to fund anything rail-related without first going to the voters to ask for their permission. It would amend the city’s charter, the guiding document that outlines how the city will operate, much like what the U.S. Constitution does for the nation.

Those who support the issue’s inclusion on the Nov. 3 ballot say it simply gives voters the right to decide how their local government spends money, especially on major capital projects.

“There is great concern, ever since (Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park), that our public officials spend money on projects without consulting the public,” says Tom Brinkman Jr., of Mount Lookout, who is a former state representative and founder of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), a group partially responsible for gathering the more than 6,000 required signatures to get the issue on the ballot. “And we feel it is important that they should. Leadership is a difficult thing to do. You are supposed to lead, not dictate (to the public).”

COAST didn’t file campaign finance reports, indicating that it plans to spend less than $1,000, mostly for yard signs, Brinkman says.

Meanwhile, city officials have quietly applied for federal and state funding, arranged public comment meetings required before federal grants can be secured and used a consulting group to do a “modest amount of pre-work,” says Michael Moore, the city of Cincinnati’s interim director of transportation and engineering.

City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. had been meeting with local business leaders to secure funding for the project, but those meetings, which didn’t land any substantive commitments, have essentially stopped. Instead, city officials are focused on securing federal and state grant dollars, Moore says, adding that officials could go back to businesses in the future if funding gaps arise.

“That’s our plan at the moment,” Moore adds. “It’s a difficult climate to be making those kinds of requests.”

The city has applied for an Ohio Transportation Review Advisory Council (TRAC) grant totaling $50 million. Moore and others will make a presentation to state officials Nov. 5 on that grant. In addition, city officials have applied for a $60 million chunk of a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. Moore has received positive feedback on the city’s prospect of getting that funded from federal officials, but it will be highly competitive.

The $1.5 billion grant pool, with applications being accepted by entities in all 50 states, has a sole request of $2.3 billion just from Ohio alone, Moore says.

“It is over-subscribed by about 14-fold,” he adds.

The city, which is facing an estimated $50 million operating budget deficit in 2010, plans to use $11 million in proceeds from a portion of the Blue Ash Airport sale in 2007 and $25 million in tax-increment financing to fund the proposed streetcar. That would mean no operating dollars, derived primarily from the city’s 2.1 percent income tax, would be needed to fund the streetcar.

ELECTION CENTRAL (here) has CityBeat's endorsements on this issue and other races and issues and an archive of other election news coverage. You can also download our "Who's Endorsing Whom" charts to see how issues and candidates fared with the local media, political action committees and other interest groups.



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