Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Proposal: Combine levy votes

Citizens would see effect on their taxes

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Imagine a world in which a visit to the voting booth is like a trip to the grocery store, with all the choices laid out next to each other: Pepsi and Coke. The zoo and children's services. Kleenex and Puffs. Senior services and mental retardation.

That's the theory behind a radical proposal to place all countywide tax levies on the ballot at the same time starting in 2008. Hamilton County Commissioner Phil Heimlich and Auditor Dusty Rhodes put the idea forward Monday, flanked by conservative groups that favor it.

"I think (voters) will be better able to make choices when they see them all at once," Rhodes said. "We want to make a connection in the minds of voters between the levies they vote on and their tax bill two months later."

Eleven countywide levies account for a quarter of homeowners' annual property tax bill - costing $424.60 on a $100,000 property last year. School, city and township levies make up the rest.

Hamilton's countywide taxes are second-highest among the state's major metropolitan areas, according to the auditor's office, with only Montgomery County higher at $432.12 a year for a $100,000 home. Hamilton's tax rate tops even Montgomery's before the stadium tax rollback is factored in.

Still, the proposal to lump all the countywide levies on one ballot is causing concern among the agencies that depend on those taxes.

"I think we would all be in a more vulnerable situation," said Bob Logan, chief executive officer of the Southwest Ohio Council on Aging, which oversees services for the elderly such as in-home care.

Agencies such as the mental health board and the agency that cares for the mentally retarded may have a harder time making voters understand their different missions and needs if they run simultaneously, he said.

"When you run separately or with one other issue, voters have a better handle on who you are," he said.

It's unclear whether Hamilton County will actually adopt the one-ballot proposal, which has never been tried elsewhere as far as Heimlich can tell. He needs one other commissioner's vote to pass it, and neither Todd Portune nor John Dowlin has taken a position.

"It demands some serious attention," Portune said. "I haven't decided yet where I come down on it."

Rhodes, who conceived the idea, has no say in whether it's implemented.

However, several anti-tax groups said Monday they support the proposal and will make it a campaign issue for all county commissioner candidates in 2004. Republican Dowlin and Democrat Portune are both up for re-election, and at least two Republicans are vying to run against Portune.

"We feel it's wrong for the government to be taking more and more money out of the family budget when it can't control its own," said Roseann Siderits of the conservative Family First organization.

The Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors also endorsed the one-ballot proposal, as did the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes.

Under the proposal, agencies up for levy renewals between now and 2008 would be allowed to seek levies only long enough to take them to that date instead of full five-year renewals. Some details, such as when an agency could try again if its levy failed, still have to be worked out.

The proposal was introduced Monday as part of the county's 2004 budget-writing process. Heimlich and Portune are teaming on other fiscal priorities, including keeping county spending from growing faster than inflation. Both also want to put a bigger chunk of the county's money in reserve in case of unforeseen financial setbacks.

Forcing agencies to share a ballot isn't meant to make some of them fail, Rhodes and Heimlich said, but rather to encourage them to pare their levy requests as much as possible.

"Consumers have the right to shop and compare; why shouldn't voters?" Heimlich said. "I think you'll see a product that's leaner and meaner."

E-mail candrews@enquirer.com

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