Saturday, May 8, 2004

Agencies seek $23M tax hike

Commissioners say $6M is more like it

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Drake Center and the Hamilton County agency for mental retardation are seeking tax increases that total about $23 million a year.

But Hamilton County commissioners say their goal is to hold increases for those services to less than $6 million a year.

How to close that gap - and what might happen to the services involved as a result - will be debated for the next several weeks by the Hamilton County Tax Levy Review Committee. That group is charged with recommending to county commissioners how much of an increase to put on November's ballot.

"This is going to be a challenge," said Christopher Finney, chairman of the tax review committee. "There's not just the interests of the communities served by Drake and MRDD to consider. There's also the interests of the taxpayers."

The Hamilton County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities will get about $53.6 million this year from its current five-year levy. Earlier this week, it filed a request to increase that amount about 35 percent to $72.4 million in 2005.

"The needs of the individuals we serve have increased significantly," said agency spokeswoman Jenny Dexter.

For example, more babies that once died as infants are surviving with life-long disabilities. More adults with Down syndrome need housing because they are outliving their parents, Dexter said.

Meanwhile, the Drake Center nursing and rehabilitation complex in Hartwell has asked to increase its annual levy support by about 31 percent, from $14.7 million this year to $19.2 million in 2005. After that, the amount would grow to $20.4 million in 2009.

The center needs more money because it is treating more complex cases, while nursing salaries, medication costs and other expenses are soaring faster than most insurers are willing to pay, said spokeswoman Kathy Graham.

Hamilton County has several special tax levies, including support for hospital care, senior services, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and other services. All face increased pressure to reduce future levy requests.

Finney said he will try to enforce the commissioners' budget goal this year, which could mean supporting an increase for one of the proposed levies while calling for a reduction in the other.

"I want to achieve that goal every year. If we don't, we'll have a worse problem next year, and I don't think that's fair to other agencies," Finney said.

County Commissioner Todd Portune said it is too early for him to say whether MRDD and Drake are asking for too much. But the Democrat and the two Republican commissioners were unanimous when they set the tax levy goal.

"We were very serious about that as a goal," Portune said.

The next steps include detailed presentations set for Tuesday from mental retardation officials and May 17 from Drake officials. The tax review committee plans to make its recommendations in early June.


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