Thursday, December 19, 2002

Cincinnati spars with county over bus system

Commissioners deny Luken's appointment to mass transit board

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hamilton County commissioners refused to appoint Tom Luken to the board overseeing the bus system Wednesday, leading Cincinnati City Council to retaliate by funding the bus system for only one month in the 2003 budget.

The back-and-forth game of political brinksmanship is the latest battle over mass transit in Hamilton County, and could have long-term implications for bus riders, taxpayers and the future of light rail in the region.

Mayor Charlie Luken nominated his father, the former mayor and congressman, as a "fiscal watchdog" who will look out for city taxpayers. That was in October.

Supporters of regional light rail - who lost a vote in November for a countywide sales-tax levy - see Mr. Luken's three-year appointment as an obstacle to any future light rail campaign, even though Mr. Luken himself has been silent on the topic.

Hamilton County Commissioners Todd Portune and John Dowlin have held up Mr. Luken's appointment for two months, asking the county prosecutor for an opinion on whether the county must accept the city's nominees to the Southwestern Ohio Regional Transit Authority. They believe the mayor's nominees are just recommendations.

That led City Council - in a letter from all nine members - to give the county an ultimatum this week: Appoint Mr. Luken by 2 p.m. Wednesday, or risk losing city funding for the countywide bus system.

Mr. Dowlin said Wednesday he was calling the city's bluff.

"You mean the City Council is going to take some action, without public input, that is going to affect a great majority of their riders?" he said. "I don't think they'll do it. I think it's an idle threat."

David Schaff, a spokesman for Mr. Portune, said the city was recklessly escalating the dispute.

"They're trying to bully the county into trying to make an appointment when there's still some outstanding issues," he said. "I don't think they needed to take it to this level."

Mr. Portune has said no appointments should be made to the SORTA board - including two county seats - until the city and county meet to discuss "long-range transit issues."

Councilman John Cranley, who is leading the city's charge, said his only long-range transit issue is weaning the bus system off its $35 million-a-year city subsidy.

"There is no other community in America where the central city pays for what is essentially a countywide service," Mr. Cranley said. "We are the only ones locally who contribute to the operating fund. Only city taxpayers pay, although we only get four members of this nine-member board. We can't possibly stay in a SORTA agreement where we don't even get our minority representation."

As a last resort, Mr. Cranley said, the city is willing to cancel the SORTA contract - a move that could mean the 30-year-old independent bus system would face a takeover attempt by the city.

"If it takes six months or a year for that to happen, we will have to make provisional funding, month by month, to make sure that bus service is not interrupted for one day," he said. "One way or another, we will get this resolved, and we will stick up for city taxpayers."


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