Sunday, June 04, 2000

Cities may have won battle

Pro-township bill in doubt

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS - City government officials locked in a bitter turf-and-tax battle with townships may have pulled another political win out of the Ohio General As sembly.

        Lawmakers left the Statehouse May 25 without passing a bill that would give townships greater powers to thwart city annexations. Although the proposal had the support of GOP leaders, a coalition of city officials, homebuilders and Realtors turned up the heat and persuaded legislators to drop it.

        Township officials had threatened to revive an effort to abolish city income taxes on commuters if their plan didn't pass. While a few are moving ahead with a pe tition drive, others say they will wait and see if the bill can pass in September.

        That makes Deerfield Township Trustee Bill Morand suspicious. He said lawmakers know it will be tough to collect the roughly 335,000 signatures needed to put the income tax issue on the November ballot if more townships don't pitch in.

        “They are dragging this out,” Mr. Morand said of legislators. “If the townships don't get enough signatures in August, they'll kill the bill in September.”

        At the center of this fight is a decades-old dispute over which government gets to control and tax property in fast-growing areas. Townships say state law gives cities nearly unfettered rights to gobble up their real estate.

        The bill would let county commissioners consider the effect a proposed city annexation would have on surrounding township lands before approving it. It also would let townships collect property taxes on city-annexed land for up to 15 years.

        Townships say this proposal would level the playing field between the governments. Cities say it would amount to a near-veto on their annexations.

        Groups representing homebuilders and Realtors also weighed in. They said the bill would ruin many central Ohio companies that build homes for first-time buyers.

        Vincent Squillace, a lobbyist for the Ohio Homebuilders Association, said townships generally don't favor plans that pack new homes close together on small, inexpensive lots. He also said many township and county governments cannot link new homes to urban water and sewer systems.

        “The city of Columbus has a near monopoly on sewer services,” Mr. Squillace said. “In an area like Franklin County, you develop in the city or you don't develop at all.”

        Concerns like that convinced Sen. Bob Cupp, R-Lima, to leave his bill in committee. He said he now plans to pass the measure this fall.

        “There is still a commitment to pass this,” Mr. Cupp said. “Hopefully it can pass the Senate in September, and the House can take it up after the November election.”

        That promise appears to be enough for many township trustees who last year threatened to cripple cities' finances if the state annexation law wasn't changed.

        Three southwestern townships started collecting petition signatures in November for a constitutional amendment that would free commuters from paying income taxes to the cities where they work.

        The proposal figured to become a politically volatile, anti-tax addition to the November 2000 ballot. If passed, the amendment would have an explosive effect on city finances.

        Cincinnati officials estimate it would cost them $150 million out of $250 million in income tax revenues that typically help fund city fire and police departments.

        The petition drive was shelved after Mr. Cupp introduced his bill. Instead of reviving the drive as threatened, Green Township Trustee William Seitz said he's willing to believe that the senator and others will pass the plan.

        “I guess what we'll do is accept their bona fides,” said Mr. Seitz, who also is a candidate for the Ohio House. “We've certainly been brushed off before, but I think the political landscape in the legislature has changed.”

        Mr. Morand is not as trusting. He said he is still trying to collect the petition signatures to meet an Aug. 9 deadline and put the anti-tax question on the November ballot.

        Without help from other townships, he suspects city officials and lawmakers are waiting to see whether the petition drive falls short.

        “I'm not impressed by (legislators') efforts up to this point,” Mr. Morand said. “If we don't get the signatures, they're going to kill it or something.”

        In the meantime, cities and developers are pushing to change the bill. One proposal from the homebuilders would bar townships from having any say in an annexation if 100 percent of the involved landowners want a city to annex their properties.

        “Our feeling is the desires of the property owners should be considered,” said Joyce Bushman, the Pickerington city manager and leader of a group of 75 Ohio cities called the Coalition for Equitable Annexation.

        “We feel the legislature is finally listening to us,” she said.

        A new hearing on proposed changes to the bill is tentatively set for July. Although Mr. Cupp said he expects to pass a compromise plan, he would not say how much he's willing to change.

        “We've been meeting with some of these groups to see if we can address these concerns and still preserve the goals of the bill,” Mr. Cupp said. “It has to be a meaningful bill, or there's no sense passing it.”


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