Hamilton County voters decided by a margin of 56-44 percent against a referendum on a proposed sales tax that would have paid for a new jail and safety programs. The tax failed by more than 23,000 votes.
Questions continue to loom, however, about the future of the county's justice system as it faces several budgetary issues in 2008. Chief among them are the lack of funding for renovations of existing facilities, an increasingly tight budget projection and county reserves that have shrunk by nearly $41 million in less than two years.
Passage of Issue 27 aimed to relieve some of the question marks by raising $736 million over 15 years with a half-cent increase over the next eight years, dropping to a quarter-cent over the seven years that follow.
The issue proved to be as divisive along political lines as it had been uniting. It brought together local established groups including the Charter, Democrat and Republican parties, the sheriff's office and six past NAACP presidents in favor of the jail tax. Opponents included less formal -- and less funded -- organizations such as the Cincinnati NAACP, the Southwest Ohio Green Party, the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), the Libertarian Party and the No Jail Tax PAC.
"We were high-tech," said Chris Finney, a spokesman for COAST. "We used the Internet. We had no money. Everyone did what they could. It was like an old barn-raising."
Proponents of the referendum said there are no alternative ideas to create funding aimed at decreasing a recidivism rate of close to 70 percent in Hamilton County.
"We have already identified $25 million in cuts," said County Commissioner David Pepper, a Democrat, referring to recent recommendations for next year's budget. "There are no good options."
Pepper was co-architect of the Comprehensive Jail and Safety Plan with fellow Democrat Commissioner Todd Portune.
"We have to take prisoners out of Butler County and end the Over-the-Rhine patrol," said Chief Sheriff's Deputy Sean Donovan, who was in attendance at LeBoxx Café downtown with Issue 27 supporters. "There is no plan B."
Donovan said that a "top notch" campaign was not enough.
"The sheriff and I have been to every citizens' group who would have us," he said. "It is easy to go out and preach 'no tax,' but you have to support the infrastructure of the county."
Spearheaded by the never-say-die attitude of NAACP President Christopher Smitherman, opponents of Issue 27 credited the efficient use of what they called their limited resources.
"The starting point was the backbone, courage and leadership of Christopher Smitherman," Finney said.
When drafting and printing the petition that eventually put the jail and safety proposal on the ballot, Smitherman continued to believe that anything was possible, according to Finney.
Opponents of the tax said that the vote indicated more than simply a desire not to pay higher taxes.
"We are declaring Hamilton County and Cincinnati, Ohio, as ground zero in reversing the national trend towards incarcerating more and more people and expanding the jail/prison industrial complex," said Suhith Wickrema, a spokesman for No Jail Tax PAC, in a statement after the results were known.
He declared the vote a message to law enforcement "not to arrest the homeless or mentally ill."
Multiple reasons for and against the referendum among the established and grassroots organizations were mirrored in voter sentiment from Bond Hill, Oakley, Pleasant Ridge and Fairfax.
Reasons for affirmative votes varied from an Oakley resident's personal experience of seeing a neighborhood drug dealer consistently receive no punishment to a Fairfax resident's belief in the need for rehabilitation programs.
Voters opposing the issue gave varied responses. One Oakley woman said her family's small business would be adversely affected.
"A higher sales tax would present an unfair advantage for other counties that we are competing with," said Amanda Wallig.
But some of the old battle cries remain.
"I think it's awful expensive," Jack Hillebrand of Oakley said after voting. "They should have been clearer. They could have cut the expense quite a bit."
"Make better use of the money we have now," said Greg Courts, an Oakley resident. "I feel like we are taxed to death."
"There need to be other programs that keep them from doing things that cause them to go to jail," said Mychal Moore of Pleasant Ridge. "I don't think a new jail is the answer to this problem."
Hamilton County avoided joining 39 Ohio counties in coming close to the highest amount of sales tax allowable by the state.
The Nov. 6 defeat ends the most recent jail debate, which has been contentious since the county tried to enact the sales tax in May. The petition drive to put the tax on the ballot blocked the tax from taking effect pending the election.
Asked why the jail plan didn't pass, even with the addition of drug rehabilitation and mental health programs, Democratic consultant Aryeh Alex said part of the problem was image.
"The image of building a jail is very negative," he said. "Nobody wants to be the community that needs to build a jail." ©
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