Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Audits would precede levies

County leaders propose rules

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Agencies that want to ask Hamilton County voters for more money would first have to open their offices to an independent company's review under plans proposed Monday by Commissioners Phil Heimlich and Todd Portune.

"No review, nothing goes on the ballot," Heimlich said.

The resolution was introduced as part of a two-pronged attack to lower the cost of county government by increasing its efficiency. Heimlich, a Republican who took office a month ago, and Portune, a Democrat on the board for two years, also unveiled a proposal to expand outside reviews to all county departments.

"I said I wanted to run county government like a business, and this is the first and most important step," Heimlich said.

Heimlich and Portune are calling the initiative "Accountability to Taxpayers." They plan to have a public hearing on it Feb. 19 and pass it by the end of the month.

Several business and citizen groups are backing the initiative, including the League of Women Voters, Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes.

"We are grateful that this program came forward," said Gene Snavley, executive vice president of the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors. "Taxes are growing too much."

Eight Hamilton County levies raised $210.2 million in 2000, according to county officials, an 80 percent increase since 1991.

The county's 13.99 total effective millage - the rate at which property is taxed - is also far higher than property tax rates elsewhere in Ohio. It compares to 2 mills in Warren, 7.09 mills in Butler and 7.28 mills in Clermont, according to data released by Heimlich. Even Cuyahoga and Franklin counties have lower millages; Montgomery (14.11 mills) and Lucas (14.48 mills) are among the few Ohio counties that have higher rates than Hamilton.

The county commissioners created a tax levy review committee in 1996, but that hasn't stopped a steady stream of requests for children's services, mental health, elderly care and other causes from increasing county taxes.

Now, Heimlich and Portune want New Jersey-based A.T. Hudson & Co. Inc. to do performance reviews of agencies, reporting their findings to the levy review committee. The committee would recommend what levy amount, if any, the commissioners should allow on the ballot.

First up would be the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, which plans to ask voters to renew its 5-year-old levy in November. The zoo is amenable to an outside review, president and CEO Gregg Hudson said Monday.

"We believe in accountability," he said. "We try to run our place like a business. But, gosh, if we can get some efficiencies out of it, great."

The company already has worked with Hamilton County, conducting reviews of eight county departments since 1997. For a cost of $4 million, it identified $53 million in potential savings. However, the county saved only half that because of a lack of follow-through on some suggestions, Heimlich said.

He expects savings of $10 million a year, to go to reducing property taxes and beefing up emergency services.

Commissioner John Dowlin, who did not attend the press conference, said beforehand that some of Hudson's suggestions were not practical.

Hudson will charge $4 million more to do the rest of the county, including elected officials' departments.

The commissioners have little control over other officials except in approving their budgets.

E-mail candrews@enquirer.com

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