Thursday, September 07, 2000

Report critical of port authority

County administrator calls it unneeded

By Dan Klepal and Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The agency being recommended to guide development of Cincinnati's riverfront is now under attack from all sides.

        A Sept. 1 report by Hamilton County Administrator Dave Krings, obtained by The Cincinnati Enquirer Wednesday, rips the idea of allowing the county's Port Authority to lead an ambitious, $250 million riverfront remodeling plan known as The Banks.

        Mr. Krings drafted his report to commissioners after high-ranking county staff and financial consultants studied the proposal for weeks.

        The conclusion: The Port Authority would offer nothing the city and county couldn't accomplish on their own, and the port's board would have wide power and no accountability to the public.

        The report also says the formation of a Port Authority for riverfront development would likely add to the project's cost because the city and county would need to cough up at least $2.1 million to pay for the port over the next three years.

        The county criticism comes one day after city officials attacked the port's ability to tax and seize land, along with the makeup of its board of directors.

        All this comes one week before the city and county were supposed to agree on allowing the port to rebuild the riverfront.

        Jack Rouse, chairman of the group that drew up the development proposal last year, said these last-minute concerns are exactly why the development should be left to an outside agency.

        “Never has a better case been made for a Port Authority as what we are going through right now,” Mr. Rouse said. “It doesn't take much to find a reason to be against anything. We've perfected that to high art in Cincinnati.”

        Mr. Krings says the debate and delay that come with billion-dollar, publicly financed developments are healthy.

        “This proposal does nothing, perhaps should do nothing, to address any flaws that are inherent in the democratic system,” Mr. Krings said. “In fact, adding a third government to the mix increases the likelihood of discord.”

        Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken, a strong supporter of allowing the port to handle The Banks development, said he is “terribly disappointed” by the county report.

        Mr. Luken described the report as a power play and said it reflects “a reluctance to give up control” among bureaucrats.

        Councilman Phil Heimlich agreed, saying: “To me, it sounds like somebody who is defending their turf rather than making sound arguments.”

        Mr. Krings said he expected the personal attacks for expressing his opinion.

        “I have to admit to feeling the intimidation placed on those who might disagree with the proposal,” Mr. Krings said in a cover letter to his report. “Please look past the rhetoric.”

        The mayor said the Krings' report was not a surprise because County Commission President Bob Bedinghaus told him it was coming.

        “But he said not to worry about it,” Mr. Luken said. “He said it was not going to be a problem.”

        Mr. Bedinghaus restated his support for the port authority plan Wednesday, and said the issue will be debated by the three commissioners at a Monday meeting.

        He said the city and county have accomplished a lot along the riverfront, but that doesn't ensure smooth sailing with The Banks.

        “We've accomplished a lot, but we did it with an awful lot of black eyes along the way,” he said. “To suggest the city and county can bring forward a project as complex as The Banks, and maintain the confidence of the development community, I think we're fooling ourselves.”

        The Port Authority has existed in Hamilton County for years, but its only mission has been to restore so-called brownfields, which are unused and usually polluted industrial sites.

        The Riverfront Advisers want to add riverfront redevelopment to the Port Authority's mission statement. The port will attract world-class developers, they say, who may be scared off by a city-county government that rarely agrees on issues.

        But a well-known anti-tax group, which has campaigned to defeat several school levies over the years, plans to make a stand against the port being granted taxing powers.

        Jim Urling, chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, said no group wants taxing power unless they plan on using it.

        Mr. Urling said to give the port's board the ability to place tax levies on the ballot would “disempower citizens and undermine the democratic process.”

        He called Mr. Rouse's assurance that the port would not place a tax levy on the ballot “disingenuous.”

        “Taxing authority and eminent domain are the two most powerful tools elected officials have,” Mr. Urling said. “When you invest those powers in unelected officials, it's a recipe for disaster.”


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