Monday, March 25, 2002

Bicker for 10 years, then panic

        Cincinnati is getting a reputation as the Barney Fife of Ohio: one bullet, in the foot. At least that's how it looks from Columbus.

        There was that Olympics thing: Local leaders rushed off to the General Assembly to ask for an immediate blank check for Cincinnati's Olympics bid.

        State lawmakers dropped everything and passed it — just to find out three days later that Cincinnati did not make the cut. The bill was quietly put out of its misery by Gov. Taft's veto.

        Now it's the hotel tax thing. For more than 10 years, Cincinnati has been talking itself into getting ready to think about doing something to expand its convention center.

Taxes or death

        Then, after 10 years, local leaders lunged at a hotel tax as if it was the last lifeboat on a sinking ship. (The way downtown is taking on water, it might be.)

        And once again, Cincinnati scrambled to Columbus to request emergency fire-drill action right now.

        Rep. Bill Seitz, who objected and tried to shift more of the tax from Hamilton County to the city, found himself on the wrong side of a stampede.

        “They come up here and tell us to drop everything, then criticize us for asking questions,” he griped.

        Well, actually, Mr. Seitz of Green Township asked more than questions. He threatened to hold the hotel tax hostage for other demands. And that's when he heard from the Cincinnati Business Committee, Procter & Gamble, the Chamber of Commerce and the Hamilton County Republican Party, among others.

Just roll over

        Mr. Seitz said the message was, “All you're supposed to do, Mr. Legislator, is roll over.”

        And he rolled.

        Mr. Seitz managed to extract a 30-year deal to limit rates for city water in the suburbs. But this week, Mr. Seitz and other local lawmakers are expected to swallow their objections and pass a bill that allows a 4.5 percent hotel-tax hike countywide.

        “Every single person I've talked to says this is a lousy deal, don't vote for it,” Mr. Seitz said.

        One of them is Sharonville Mayor Virgil Lovitt. He says the suburbs have been strong-armed by “big, old money” into an oppressive tax that will kill jobs and dry up visitors.

        The total room tax, including sales taxes, will hit 16.5 percent, he said: “Third highest in the nation, behind Houston and San Antonio. And they have warm weather.”

        Mayor Lovitt also points out that 65 percent of the rooms being taxed are outside the city.

        “We were willing to take an increase, as long as they kept it under 15 percent,” he said. “They didn't budge one fraction.”

        The suburbs are steamed.

        “What sent a lot of them into orbit,” Mr. Seitz said, “was when the city of Cincinnati got a $50 million windfall and spent it in one day without one farthing for the convention center.”

        He feels bruised. So does Mayor Lovitt, who hopes to derail the speeding train with help from the Ohio Hotel and Lodging Association. If the battle goes statewide, it's because Cincinnati pushed too hard, and the suburbs pushed back.

        One small step for downtown — and a big step backward for regional cooperation.

        Convention center expansion is a no-brainer. But Cincinnati has an uncanny talent for making no-brainers look as brainless as a whole posse of Barney Fifes.

        E-mail: Past columns at


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