Sunday, February 15, 2004

Q&A: Commissioner candidates

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Republican primary races for seats on the Hamilton County Commission? Until recently such contests were virtually unheard of because the GOP held all three seats on the three-member commission.

Things changed four years ago when Democrat Todd Portune defeated Republican Bob Bedinghaus. This year Portune is up for re-election and there are five Republicans vying for the chance to take back the seat - Chris Monzel, who lost his seat on Cincinnati City Council last fall; David Grossmann, a retired Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge; Russ Jackson, an Anderson Township Trustee; Jim Sumner, a Blue Ash councilman; and Sandra Faith Hall, a financial planner from Mount Lookout.

In the other race Cincinnati City Councilman Pat DeWine is challenging incumbent John Dowlin. Dowlin once said he wouldn't seek another term, but later changed his mind. DeWine, frustrated with being in the minority on city council, decided not to wait for Dowlin to move on.

All these candidates recently sat down for question-and-answer sessions with members of the Enquirer's Editorial Board.

John Dowlin vs. Pat DeWine

Q. You both have a reputation as budget hawks. Talk about that, and explain what the difference is between you.

Pat DeWine: I'm proud of my record at City Hall. I think I've been the one person over the last four-plus years who stood up time and time again against wasteful spending.

Quite frankly, I don't think county government has done a good enough job on taxes and spending. We are spending more and more money and are taxing people at higher rates than virtually any other county. I look at county government in need of reform. I have lot of respect for John. But I do believe our government has gotten too cozy, too insular and to unwilling to stand up to the status quo. I want to go over there and change things.

John Dowlin: Obviously, I disagree. In the last five years we have spent our tax dollars at less than the rate of inflation.

There is a difference in the approach I take and others take. Others take an approach of confrontation. It takes me longer to do what I do, which is to try to work things out. But in the last five years we have spent lower than inflation.

It is also incorrect to say we have the highest tax rate of larger urban counties. We are in fact in about the middle of the pack, unless you take into account what the board of county commissioners has voted, which is the 2.44 mill reduction based on the stadium sales tax. With that taken into account we are the lowest of the large urban counties.

Q. On development, has the county been remiss in not moving forward with the Banks project? What do you think should be done?

Dowlin: What we have always said was we will develop the Banks as we had the money to do it. Our revenues are down, our sales taxes are down. And we've also indicated to the Port Authority that we had $45 million. Their proposal was $60-some million. And the rest of the money has to come from private sources, and that has not occurred. We talked to the Port Authority and they said, just borrow the money, and we said no. We do support the Banks. We do support the Port Authority. We're working behind the scenes on what kind of Port Authority we have.

DeWine: Absolutely, we need to finish the Banks but we need to do it in a way that doesn't jeopardize the financial security of the county. Quite frankly the reason the Banks isn't done is because the county commission mismanaged the stadium project with $50 million in cost overruns that should be available to spend on the Banks.

A large part of this was the unwillingness of the county to go outside and hire competent professionals to manage that project.

The county has been uncooperative in trying to help the Port Authority to get the Banks done. It seems to be more about turf, more about who controls things than about getting things done for the betterment of the community.

We absolutely need a countywide Port Authority. In fact what we need to start doing is economic development on a countywide basis.

Dowlin: In terms of a "mismanaged" stadium, people should realize what the city's role was in that. We thought we had a deal with city to give us the land under the stadium at no cost if the sales tax was passed. They did not, and we ended up paying something like $90 million for it. The city delayed on the contract, and Mike Brown said that if we didn't have a contract, the team was leaving. It took four months for the city to agree. Because of the delay we had problems with the design. Electricians' drawings didn't match pipefitters' drawings and things of that nature.

DeWine: John's tactic is "blame the city." We can point fingers all we want. I wasn't on council at the time. I've been a leading proponent of managed competition since then. I'm certainly not happy with every decision City Council makes. I'm in the minority probably on most of them. But we've got to change that attitude that it's all the city's fault. Let's all take responsibility on how to get things done.

Dowlin: I think it's just a question of economics. If a developer builds a garage with our money and we get nothing in return for it, that is a real problem. And we have been cooperating with the city.

Q. How do you view the development of western Hamilton County in addressing the county's long-term population and job loss, and does the emergence of "big box" retailers there help or hurt?

DeWine: I do think that the development of western Hamilton County has to be an important part of growth in the region. We have to do it in the right way. I don't like these "big boxes" personally any more than a lot of people do, but I think we're going to have them and the right question is how do we control the growth and make it manageable for people who live there and also preserve resources that make it an attractive place.

Dowlin: We agree on that. We have to look at long-term goals. That's part of my initiative with Community Compass, to say what is the goal.

In terms of development, people have to realize that the current manufacturing says you have one floor. Land is cheaper in the suburbs and it is available. I do believe it is inevitable that business will be going to large acres, and if we develop western Hamilton County that will give us good jobs and a decent quality of life.

DeWine: It is important we also focus on recreational things, on preserving natural resources. Those are part of the things that make a community high value and high quality of life.

Q. For Pat DeWine - You just ran for City Council, and now you're running for commissioner. Why are you making the switch so soon, and is that unfair to the city voters who re-elected you three months ago?

I don't think so. I actually hadn't planned on this race and hadn't really thought about it until December. When I got done with the council race, folks started asking me to run for one of the commission seats. I said I would take a look at it. It is important from my standpoint to hang on to Republican county commission seats.

I'm someone who wants to reform government, and I just think I have more opportunity to do that at the county right now than at City Council. I've loved being on City Council. I think I've made a difference on many issues. I also feel it's difficult to follow through and get it done. One of the things that's most attractive to me about the county commission is that you have that ability to not just pass legislation but implement it. .

Q. For John Dowlin - A couple of years ago, you said you would not run for re-election. This past year, you changed your mind. Do you feel you have broken a pledge, and is that unfair to county voters?

It was a throwaway line. But I will tell you that enough people said to me, "We need you there. We need your experience. We need a suburban voice." I don't even remember saying it, you know? I'm sure I did say it. But today I'm being asked to run. And I have the energy to run. I have the expertise to run. And I believe we need a suburban voice on the county commission.

Q. What do you think are the biggest problems the county will face in the next 5-10 years?

Dowlin: One of the concerns I have deals with traffic congestion. On I-75 we have a congestion problem. What are we going to do? My suggestion is that we have a truck ban. Whether that's legal or not I don't know. We're also working on "hot lanes" and other ideas.

ODOT says we're going to put extra lanes in I-75. When are we going to start? Well the earliest we can start is six years from now, they say. Why don't you start right now? Start with the Lockland split. They're not going to change the Lockland split. They're just going to re-stripe it. Why don't you do that today instead of six years from now?

That's the kind of things we're trying to do.

DeWine: Hamilton County's population has had a faster decline than in nearly all large U.S. counties. No large county in America lost a larger chunk of private-sector jobs than Hamilton County.

Those are the two issues - loss of population and loss of jobs. We need to look at things on the macro level. Those are the issues that matter over the next few years.

Winner gets Portune

Q. What in your background and experience do you believe makes you the candidate best suited to run successfully in the fall election?

Russ Jackson: It's extremely important that the townships finally get equal representation on the board of county commissioners. The cities are represented, the small cities are represented. But 34 percent of the population comes from the townships. Townships are the only segment of the population projected to grow this decade. I'd like to bring a business perspective to the commission. With the challenges at hand, particularly with jobs and spending, it would work very well to have a person with a business background.

Sandra Faith Hall: Of the five of us, I have the most electability. Todd Portune has a strong base. It's not that easy to knock him off. You need somebody who can not only pull the Republican vote, but other votes. I think I proved in my previous (Ohio House) race against Tyrone Yates, I pulled a third of the vote in a district that was only about 12-13 percent Republican. We're going to have to do that

David Grossmann: I've had long experience in county government. I've run a large court recognized nationally as one of the finest-run courts. I've administered a large staff of 600 people and watched over my budgets. I do have business experience. I run a law firm. Beyond that I've operated my family's business. Electability: I've got a fairly well-known name. I've run four countywide races successfully. I am a full-time candidate. I would be a full-time commissioner.

Jim Sumner: Experience is a key criterion I've demonstrated successfully in the city of Blue Ash. I've been on the city council out there for 12 years. I'm in my seventh consecutive term with four years as mayor. We've been very successful because of the progressive leadership style we've demonstrated, but also because we've recognized the importance of balanced growth.

We're all going to tell you we can beat Todd Portune. It's going to be very difficult. I think I can also. When I started my campaign I went to a lot of elected officials around the county and more than 70 of them chose to endorse me. So there are a lot of other people used to running who believe I'm electable.

Chris Monzel: We need common-sense leadership in the county. For too long we've had divisiveness on city-county issues. I think what I can bring to the table is that having grown up in the county I have the capability of bridging the gap. When I was on Cincinnati City Council I did work with the county quite well on the housing docket in the municipal court system.

I can beat Todd Portune as well, and I will. Todd Portune got 76,000 votes in the city alone. He won with 176,000 votes. You need a candidate with high name ID in the city. And with my county background, I can get the county Republican votes as well to get the majority.

Q. How do you view the commissioners' handling of tax and budget issues during the past few years, and do you see areas that require change?

Hall: I don't think it's as horrible as everybody makes it sound, even when it comes to people leaving the county. I think there's a normal evolution of people moving out of the county because of economics, because of transportation, because of access. The problem is that as people go, the tax burdens have not.

Grossmann: I believe the county commissioners, while well-intentioned, have not taken as seriously as they should the desire and necessity to reduce taxes across the board. We need to do that by operating a very lean house over those matters the county commissioners have direct control over. I believe I will be able to do that. The county has a problem with loss of population, loss of jobs. Business goes where it is welcome and stays where it is well-treated. I don't think the county and the city have done the job in that regard.

Sumner: I don't agree that taxes are completely out of control. We have to work to reduce them. But so much of what we have seen aren't driven by commissioners. Only 20 percent of levies we pay today are controlled by commissioners.

I think they could be more disciplined about how some of the levies reach the ballot. But many of the things that we're doing under county direction are federal and state mandates. We don't have the option to not do them.

The other idea that's out there is putting all levy issues on one ballot. I think that's a bad idea, a recipe for failure.

Monzel: You have to cut the taxes, but you have to cut spending as well. The population of Hamilton County in the past 10 years has been decreasing at a 5 percent rate, but the number of county government employees has increased 450 over the past 6 years. That is a recipe for disaster there.

On city council we rolled back property taxes. It wasn't much money but it was symbolic. It showed that as a government we were trying to be fiscally conservative so that people understood that business and residents are welcome here. The same thing needs to happen on the commission. One way to do that is put all the levies on one ballot, which I do support.

Jackson: The problem is that fragmentation of the budget process makes it very difficult to get a handle on the problem. Less than half of the property taxes we pay go for basic services. And within that phase of the budget are all the independent budgets of these elected officials who have proprietary attitudes toward their own budgets, which makes it much more difficult for commissioners to make sound economic decisions. More than half go to pay for special levies. Three are mandated services. I don't understand why those are special levies. They should be part of general fund. I don't believe they should even be on the ballot.

For the rest of them, the idea of putting them all together is not illogical. We need to get a handle on it, and one way is to get the public's attention and I think that's the idea behind that bundling concept.

Q. On development, has the county been remiss in not moving forward with the Banks?

Grossman: I think the Banks needs to go forward. It is a significant development for the downtown area. I've redeveloped some buildings and turned some of them into condominiums very close to downtown, and that is what the Banks is trying to do - create more downtown housing, more downtown living. If you do that, you create a base for businesses to flourish. I'm not talking about mega-businesses. I'm talking about the people who operate shops and stores that make the downtown streets vibrant. I don't think county commissioners and particularly City Council have been focusing on that with sufficient clarity.

Sumner: The county has been remiss. The project has stalled, but not only has it stalled I believe (county administrator) David Krings and others have actually obstructed the process. Because of the stadium overruns, the money that was targeted for the Banks isn't available. The challenge was for the Port Authority to get independent funds.

So I intend to be a strong champion for the Port Authority to develop the Banks. I think it is absolutely essential. There is no more unique development opportunity in the nation than these eight square blocks along prime riverfront space. It is an opportunity for Cincinnati to capture the spotlight nationally.

Monzel: The Banks won't happen because the money's not there. Sales tax receipts are going down, and we're looking at a projected deficit. The commission has to take strong stand on taxes. If we want to attract businesses to this area, they need to know they're not going to be taxed out of competition.

Jackson: The suburbs have a vested interest in the viability of downtown Cincinnati as our hub. We don't want to become suburbs of Mason. We want the city to succeed. The first thing that has to happen is the county has to get its finances in order. We're suffering through this stadium debacle. Until that's resolved it doesn't make a lot of sense to focus dollars on this project or any other project, as much as we want it.

Hall: I am a believer that unless the money is there, they shouldn't be doing it. A lot of egos get in the way, and we don't get things that need to be done for the community. The community as a whole isn't that concerned about whether the Banks gets done. They're more concerned about their taxes.

We're too concerned with having a tax base that's based on large companies and not more concerned with the mom and pop stores and we've made it much too difficult for people.

Q. What do you think are the biggest problems the county will face in the next 5-10 years?

Monzel: I see the donut syndrome happening where you have a hole created within the county. Right now you could say it's the city, but it's spreading out to the county.

The two issues facing Hamilton County are increasing taxes and increasing crime. Taxes are a problem because you have to sustain that lower population that has less dollars and still provide the same services. It's a death spiral and we've seen it take place in Detroit and other cities, and we have to prevent it.

Crime is increasing. We need to have all the resources in place, support our police and sheriff's department to decrease crime. If people don't feel safe, they're going to move to Warren, Butler and Clermont counties.

Jackson: There will be tremendous opportunities for prosperity in Hamilton County if we go back to some of the way we did things years ago, when we got the acts of the city and county together to do projects. Suburbs want to help the city of Cincinnati, but they don't want to subsidize it. There's a distinct difference there.

Taxes are important because people feel they're paying too much. Whether they are or not doesn't matter. Perception is reality. We have to convince them it's being spent properly. Once that happens they will have confidence again in their government and we can make good things happen.

Hall: I don't think taxes are an issue in areas of the county where people perceive they have good quality services and schools for money they pay. The problem is there's a lot of Hamilton County, particularly the city, where people don't feel they're getting back the goods and services they're paying for. That's something to work on.

I believe that we are truly going to have to encourage small businesses and entrepreneurship through the county, and we need to quit letting large companies take us hostage. As a society, as a government, as individuals, we have lost the ability to differentiate between wants and needs, and we need to get back to what the county is really supposed to provide.

Grossmann: I am familiar with probably every major city in the country, and Cincinnati is still the one of the most beautiful cities in inland America. We are known as a city that has favored the arts for generations. We are also known as a city where people want to raise their children. But we've besmirched ourselves in recent times. We have an issue I haven't heard anybody mention, and that is the question of race relations. We suffer from the fact that we have not dealt properly with that. I have some very strong views about race. As far as I am concerned there is only one race under heaven, and that's the human race. And we all have to start looking at ourselves that way. If we can heal that - I believe we can - and if we can address issues of safety, we will see a turnaround in this community that will be special. This is a wonderful place to live, but we need to start emphasizing the positives.

Sumner: I agree, and one thing I intend to do is bring an optimism to the county commission. But my focus is on the jobs. The most serious issue facing the county is the need to create, attract and retain jobs. We're suffering now. The job loss has been tremendous. I think most of our problems get solved by bringing jobs. The jobs provide a tax base for us to run the government on, it allows us to reduce the tax structure. It also attracts residential development. That's what we have to bring to this county. I agree there's a hole in the donut. We have to correct that.

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