Monday, February 26, 2001

Public has lost faith in tax levies

        Paul Brown Stadium could become the next Cincinnati subway system, a scandalously expensive project that robbed the public and killed progress.

        Too many times in the last six months, I have heard the same refrain from people in and out of government:

        “We could do (fill in the blank: light rail, a park, a museum), but it requires public money. That would be the kiss of death because of Paul Brown Stadium.”


        Three little words, Paul Brown Stadium, can have a chilling effect on progress.

        Two Hamilton County Commissioners, John Dowlin and Todd Portune, took steps last week to melt that big chill. Their votes kept two levies — one for children's services, another for hospitals — off May's ballot.

        Neither commissioner is against kids or hospitals. The levies were simply poorly prepared.

        “They failed to do their homework,” Commissioner Dowlin told me.

        “The numbers were not crunched or analyzed. We can't put something like that before the public,” said Commissioner Portune.

        Good to see the county showing some fiscal stewardship for a change.

        These watchdogs need to prove they are ever-vigilant with our money. That way the stadium fiasco won't force progress to grind to a halt like a certain Midwestern city's subway system.


        Cincinnati's subway was the little train that couldn't. As with Paul Brown Stadium, it started with strong public support and ended with none.

        In 1916, voters approved a $6.1 million subway bond issue by a 6-to-1 margin.

        Work began on a 16-mile loop in 1920. Two miles of tunnels, plus seven miles of platforms and passageways, were in place when funds ran out in February 1927.

        Later that year, a report - claiming the job could be finished for another $10.6 million - angered voters. They felt betrayed by politicians' lies. The project's price had more than doubled. Sounds familiar.

        Eventually, the subway was abandoned. The bonds were finally paid off in 1966. With interest, the final total was $13 million.

        Not one subway train ever picked up a single passenger. But, countless seeds of distrust over public projects had been sown.

Yesterday, today
        Seventy-four years later, distrust flourishes.

        “Another sales tax would have a tough time passing,” Commissioner Dowlin said.

        “Voters don't trust the county to spend their money wisely,” said Commissioner Portune.

        Both commissioners know they must restore that trust. Keeping two half-baked levies off the ballot is a good start.

        For an encore they should stop pouring our tax dollars down the Bengals' money pit.

        Do what Todd Portune favors: Renegotiate the team's stadium deal. Refuse to pay cost overruns upfront.

        He believes such actions will show taxpayers, “we are trying to right past wrongs. We can be trusted.”

        Only with that trust can the commissioners ask taxpayers to provide funds for progressive projects.

        “Voters must know we won't rush things through,” Todd Portune said. “They have to feel confident the prices we quote are firm.”

        Without such confidence, levies go down to defeat and progress dies.

        Without progress, Hamilton County can dig a hole and bury itself alongside Cincinnati's long-dead subway.


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