Sunday, October 03, 1999

Councilman Booth has tax epiphany


As election looms, he favors rollback

BY HOWARD WILKINSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Those who serve in the ecclesiastical world are familiar with deathbed conversions, where the hitherto unrepentant see the light just before shuffling off their mortal coils.

        Better late than never.

        Those who toil in the political vineyards are aware of a similar phenomenon — Election Day conversions, where candidates don their parachutes and land on the other side of an issue, when it appears that is where the votes are.

        Ask Democratic Cincinnati City Councilman Paul Booth whether that is why he announced this past week that he would now support the modest property tax rollback proposed by Republican Councilman Phil Heimlich, and Mr. Booth will tell you that, no, he is doing it because “citizens are entitled to receive some of their tax dollars back.”

        Back in June, when council first considered the Heimlich plan, it was not at all clear that Mr. Booth felt that way about the tax burden on Cincinnati. Council referred the Heimlich plan to a council committee. In councilspeak, “referred to committee” in many cases means that the legislation will be treated like a jar of your grandma's canned okra — stashed on a pantry shelf until it is encased in dust.

        Mr. Booth made no speeches in favor of the idea back when it was first raised in council; supporters of the plan were convinced he needed some not-so-subtle persuasion.

        Friday, at a press conference announcing his decision, Mr. Booth said he voted the way he did in June because he wanted “more information” on the plan.

        It is not clear what information he was seeking. It does not take an Enrico Fermi to figure out the equation: with Cincinnati property values expected to rise by at least 7 percent next year, a slight rollback in the millage the city collects will prevent property owners from seeing an increase in their property tax bills.

        Not that it would be much of one. If the Heimlich measure is approved, the owner of a $90,000 home in Cincinnati would find another $14 in his or her pocket.

        Don't spend it all in one place.

        Maybe the “information” Mr. Booth was seeking was from the Coalition Opposed to Additional Taxes and Spending (COAST), an anti-tax group that mounted a very public, and very loud, campaign to pressure Mr. Booth, Democrat Todd Portune and Charterite Jim Tarbell into supporting the plan.

        COAST went out and distributed 10,000 postcards to Cincinnati voters, asking them to mail them to the three council members and urge them to support the Heimlich plan as well as to pledge support for any other property tax rollback that comes down the council pipeline over the next two years.

        The COAST literature managed to bend the truth a tad by making it appear that Mr. Booth and Mr. Portune had come out foursquare against the Heimlich plan, which they had not.

        Mr. Portune said in June that he supported the plan, but, since then, has assumed more positions on this issue than a Lilias Folan yoga student.

        Mr. Booth, an appointed city council member who is by no means a sure bet for election this fall, has been badgered by the COAST people at every turn, and, politically, can't afford to alienate any group of voters. And People Who Hate Taxesis a pretty big group of voters.

        Mr. Portune is probably not in any danger of losing his council seat, but he would like to be the top vote-getter and, thus, the next mayor. He probably would also like to avoid handing Mr. Heimlich, one of his council rivals, a ready made campaign issue, so instead of committing to the Heimlich plan, he has been saying he wants to review all the competing plans for tax relief before making a decision.

        COAST organizers freely admit that their postcard campaign in support of a tax rollback — which even they will tell you is of little consequence — was a piece of political hardball aimed at shaking up council members who are sweating out this election.

        And, COAST says, if one or two of them end up getting defeated, all the better.

        Little wonder then that Mr. Booth is doing his impression of Saul on the road to Damascus.

        Howard Wilkinson's column runs Sundays. Call him at 768-8388 or e-mail at hwilkinson@enquirer.com.

       



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