Monday, September 20, 1999

Tax foes hope to grab city voters


Rollback group targets 3 incumbents

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati's City Council race this year could turn on the price of a large pizza.

        About $14 is what the owner of a $90,000 home in Cincinnati would save if Republican Phil Heimlich can persuade city council to roll back the city's portion of property tax reve nues.

        Proponents of the Heimlich plan want to make it a defining issue of this council campaign. But critics see it as nothing more than a political diversion. The question becomes, how will voters look at it?

        Helping Mr. Heimlich is the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes. (COAST). The group, known for its opposition to school tax increases, is using the issue to target Democrats Todd Portune and Paul Booth and Charterite Jim Tarbell, even though Mr. Portune voted for the Heimlich plan this summer.

        “The property tax is the most hated tax there is, and we see this as a wedge issue in the campaign,” said Christopher Finney, an adviser to Mr. Heimlich and a COAST organizer. “We're going to use it.”

        Opponents of the Heimlich measure say it is a bogus issue — pure election-year politics wrapped around a tax rollback that amounts to less than one percent of the city's operating budget.

        “I get real tired of these guys,” Hamilton County Democratic Party Co-chairman Tim Burke said of Mr. Finney and fellow COAST organizer Tom Brinkman Jr. “They've created this issue so that form will win over substance.”

        The Heimlich proposal is the one COAST and Republican council candidates have latched on to, but the debate over the city's share of the property tax goes well beyond that.

        Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who cannot run for another term, has her own plan to give Cincinnati homeowners property tax relief; it temporarily derailed the Heimlich plan when she introduced it in June. City Manager John Shirey, meanwhile, has proposed a budget that he says would give back $2.5 million to Cincinnati property owners in 2000.

        Others, like Republican council candidate Pat DeWine, want to eliminate the city's share of the property tax altogether. Mr. DeWine's plan says the city could do that within several years by limiting increases in spending to the rate of inflation.

        Mr. DeWine's plan, unlike the Heimlich proposal, is focused on city government spending, rather than taxes.

        “We're going to be able to give people real tax relief when we finally get spending under control,” Mr. DeWine said.

        But, in the early stages of the council campaign, it is the Heimlich proposal that is driving the debate, mainly because of the efforts by COAST.

        COAST organizers plan to keep targeting the three council members right up until Election Day, unless and until council passes the Heimlich measure. In June, council rejected the plan on a 5-4 vote.

        Mr. Heimlich plans to force council to vote again on his proposal before the November election, saying council has to act quickly because 2000 tax bills will go out in December.

        If council does not approve his rollback, Mr. Heimlich said, it will be voting to raise taxes, despite the fact that millage going to the city would remain

        unchanged.

        “The taxpayer doesn't care about the millage; he cares about the amount of money coming out of his pocket,” Mr. Heimlich said.

        COAST is distributing 10,000 postcards to Cincinnati voters, who are asked to mail them to Mr. Portune, Mr. Booth and Mr. Tarbell. The cards urge the councilmen to vote for the Heimlich rollback and sign a pledge to vote for property tax rollbacks through the next council term. So far, 12 of 20 council candidates have signed the pledge.

        Mr. Brinkman said direct mailings to Cincinnati homeowners and radio ads targeted at the three council members are also a possibility.

        “These three are politically vulnerable; that's why we are targeting them,” Mr. Brinkman said.

        Mr. Tarbell called the COAST campaign “sad. Sad and inappropriate, in that these people can't make their argument on its own merits. They have to attack. All for a rollback that wouldn't give anyone any meaningful relief from taxes.”

        Mr. Booth could not be reached for comment.

        COAST is an issue-oriented political action committee and, under election laws, cannot spend its money to elect or defeat candidates. Its organizers are careful to cast their messages as “education” for voters, not as pleas to vote for or against any candidate.

        But the Hamilton County Republican Party has no such restrictions. It can and will spend money this fall to advertise the fact that all seven of its candidates, incumbent and nonincumbent alike, are for the Heimlich tax rollback.

        “No, the amount of money in the Heimlich plan is not huge, but it is the principle,” said Shannon Walker Jones, executive director of the Hamilton County Republican Party. “It's a core issue — where you stand on taxes. It defines who you are as a candidate.”

        Mr. Tarbell and Mr. Booth are both appointed council members who have never been elected on their own. Mr. Portune's re-election to council is considered a certainty; but Mr. Brinkman said the campaign could prevent him from being the top vote-getter and, thus, mayor for the next two years.

        Mr. Portune said he is being targeted for political reasons.

        “The only time council voted on this issue, I voted for it, and I would do it again, if that's the only plan on the table,” Mr. Portune said. He said COAST is distorting his position.

        The property tax issue arose when Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes suggested to Mr. Heimlich that the city might want to roll back the amount it collects from property taxes from 6.1 mills to 5.68 mills. Because of an estimated 7 percent increase in property values in the city, the city would take in about $2 million more in 2000 than it did in 1999.

        That money, Mr. Heimlich and his supporters argue, should be returned to the taxpayers.

        Mr. Heimlich and COAST organizers have said that if the millage is left at 6.1 mills, it will amount to an unvoted tax increase.

        Mr. Portune argued that Mr. Heimlich and his supporters have exaggerated the increase in revenue. “The fact is, most people would probably end up getting a lot less than the $14.”

        Mr. Portune and Republican council member Jeanette Cissell, a supporter of the Heimlich rollback, have introduced a plan that would pay for the city's share of convention center expansion, cap city spending and give taxpayers an as-yet unspecified “rebate” on the city's 2.1 percent earnings tax.

        “It is the earnings tax that affects people most directly,” Mr. Portune said. “That is where the real tax burden is.”

       



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