Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Taxpayers may get reminder county skimps on city parks

By Gregory Korte,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati City Council, already in a fight with its own park board over $250,000 in park budget cuts, now seems intent on picking a battle with the Hamilton County Park District.

        About one-third of the money raised by the county park district's 1-mill tax levy comes from Cincinnati property owners. The portion of that money spent inside the city limits: zero.

        It's been a constant source of irritation for city leaders such as Mayor Charlie Luken, who see the county parks' $12 million a year property tax levy — four times the budget of the city parks — as an irresistible pot of riverfront development gold.

        And so City Council, egged on by 87-year old activist, former teacher and real estate broker Donald A. Spencer, is prepared to vote today on a resolution urging the park board to more fairly spread the wealth.

        The timing of this resolution is no coincidence. The park district has a 15-year replacement levy on the May 7 ballot. Because the levy was last approved in 1988, the replacement levy would bring in about 50 percent more than the current levy — about $18 million.

        While council members admit their resolution has little teeth, there's an oh-so-implied threat that Cincinnati politicos could campaign against the levy.

        “The "teeth' is in our saying we do or don't support the levy, and whether our citizens do or don't support the levy,” said Councilman David Pepper, the resolution's chief sponsor. “I don't plan on spending the rest of April going door to door in a negative campaign. I just think the citizens of Cincinnati should know what they're voting on, and what they're getting out of it.”

        Officials from the Hamilton County Park District couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday, but they have a standard explanation every time the city comes knocking for money:

        • The ballot language of the county's park levy prohibits spending the money on parks not owned by the Hamilton County Park District.

        • The county district — with its giant 3,991-acre Miami Whitewater Forest and 2,465-acre Winton Woods — supports a different kind of park than the city system. The county's mission focuses on scenic, undeveloped nature preserves, while city parks are generally smaller, more developed and intended for recreation.

        • Many city residents drive out of the city to enjoy county parks.


        E-mail from Eeyore: John Shirey, the former city manager and scapegoat du jour at Cincinnati City Hall, has been remarkably quiet in recent months, even as people have blamed him for everything from the budget deficit to the state of race relations.

        But Mr. Shirey broke his silence after a story in the Enquirer last weekend reported that his successor, Valerie Lemmie, couldn't get into her City Hall parking space because someone had parked a city car there and the battery had died.

        “For the record, I did not use a city-owned car,” Mr. Shirey said in an e-mail. “When I left the office for the last time on Nov. 30, I also left parking space No. 1 in the city hall courtyard empty. Someone else is responsible for a city-owned vehicle with a dead battery being there.

        “I am not surprised, however, that I am still being blamed for things of which I had no knowledge or involvement,” he said.

        Council members gave Mr. Shirey the nickname “Eeyore” — after the gloomy donkey in the “Winnie the Pooh” stories — in part because of the browbeaten way he handled criticism during his eight-year tenure.

        City Hall reporter Gregory Korte can be reached at 768-8391



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