In a ruling today, Hamilton County Judge Robert Winkler said the city will have to allow for a referendum on the parking plan and imposed a permanent injunction pending the outcome of a referendum.
The ruling means the city may be unable to rely on the parking plan to balance fiscal year 2014’s budget, and the city may be forced to find cuts elsewhere by July 1, when the new budget will kick in.
The ruling may be appealed, but City Solicitor John Curp says he is not aware of any filing yet. He says Mayor Mark Mallory and the city administration plan to hold a press conference later this afternoon to discuss the ruling in further detail.
For opponents of the parking plan, the ruling comes as a big victory that will allow them to put the parking plan on the ballot if they gather enough eligible petition signatures by April 5.
For the city, the ruling potentially leaves a $25.8 million hole in the 2014 budget.
When the restraining order was extended for two weeks on March 20, city spokesperson Meg Olberding told CityBeat the delays were causing the city to approach a “pressure point”: “We respect the court's right to do that (the extension), and know that every day that we cannot make the parking deal happen is a day that we are closer to having to lay people off.”In the past, City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. said the plan will force the city to lay off 344 employees, including 80 firefighter and 189 police positions.
But opponents argue there are ways to solve the budget without laying people off. As an alternative to the parking plan, Councilman Chris Seelbach proposed Plan S, which would redirect $7.5 million in casino revenue to help balance the deficit, cut $5 million based on the results of the city's priority-driven budgeting process and put two charter amendments on the ballot that, if approved, would include up to a $10-per-month trash fee and increase the city's admissions tax by 2 percent.
City Council approved the parking plan on March 6 to lease the city’s parking assets to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority to help balance the budget for the next two fiscal years and fund more than $100 million in development projects, including the creation of a downtown grocery store and more than 300 luxury apartments ("Parking Stimulus," issue of Feb. 27).
Opponents of the parking plan say they’re concerned the city will cede too much control over its parking assets and cause parking rates to skyrocket. The city says rate increases are initially capped at 3 percent or inflation — whichever is higher.
But the rates can change with a unanimous vote from a special committee, approval from the city manager and a final nod from the Port Authority. The special committee would comprise of four people appointed by the Port Authority and one appointed by the city manager.
The ruling comes after the city and opponents of the parking plan met in court on March 15 to discuss whether the plan is subject to referendum.
Curt Hartmann, an attorney who represents the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and opponents of the parking plan, said the city charter is vague on its definition of emergency clauses, and legal precedent supports siding with voters’ right to referendum when there is ambiguity.
The city cited state law to argue emergency clauses, which remove a 30-day waiting period on legislation, eliminate the possibility of referendum. Terry Nestor, who represented the city, said legal precedent requires the city to defer to state law as long as state law is not contradicted in the city charter.
With his decision, Winkler sided with opponents of the parking plan. He wrote in the ruling, “If the people of Cincinnati had intended to exempt emergency legislation from their referendum powers, they could have done so when adopting Article II, Section 3 of the City Charter.”