Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Taxpayers want a bit of help, too

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

"I don't think citizens ask for too much, but we'd have to jump through hoops just to get something like a stop sign," said 22-year-old Alphonso Green. "This Convergys thing just seems like too much."
(Leigh Patton photo)
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The giant Convergys Corp. wants $63.4 million from Cincinnati City Hall to keep from crossing the Ohio River to Northern Kentucky.

All Alphonso and Jessica Green of East Price Hill want from City Hall is a stop sign on St. Lawrence Avenue so they can cross the street in safety.

The Greens think Convergys will get what it wants first.

"I don't think citizens ask for too much, but we'd have to jump through hoops just to get something like a stop sign," said 22-year-old Alphonso. He and his wife pushed their 2-month-old son Alphonso Jr. among the spend-a-buck, take-a-chance booths at the St. Lawrence Church Festival Sunday afternoon, just a few blocks from the young couple's home.

"This Convergys thing just seems like too much.''

All over Cincinnati Sunday, taxpayers like the Greens were enjoying the cool breeze and sunshine, and, when asked, weighing the pros and cons of the $63.4 million tax-incentive deal that Cincinnati City Council will vote on today. It is a proposal that dwarfs any other given to a private company to keep it happy and within the city limits.

Some Cincinnatians who talked about the issue were willing to at least consider the possibility that granting a tax break of that size to a company that would keep 1,500 jobs downtown and promise to hire hundreds more.

However, most believed the city was offering too much for too little.

Others had not heard of the deal engineered by Mayor Charlie Luken, which surfaced last week.

Some, in fact, weren't even sure what Convergys is.

"I know they are big, but I couldn't really tell you what they do," said Tim Freihofer of Price Hill, as he took bets at the baseball game booth at the St. Lawrence festival.

The answer is that Convergys is a company that processes customer bills and customer service for a wide range of companies, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Procter & Gamble and General Electric.

If council approves the tax incentive package, it could cost city government as much as $2.8 million a year. Rejecting the package could mean losing a company whose workers contribute in earnings taxes about 1.3 percent of the city's $305 million general fund.

"The problem is, you want to keep businesses in the city and keep downtown strong, but you don't want to bankrupt the city," Freihofer said. "That's a tough one."

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Neighborhood concerns

As Robert Webster, a retiree from Price Hill, filled out his tickets for the St. Lawrence Festival grand prize drawing, he pronounced the proposed Convergys tax break package "a bad deal."

"They spend the taxpayers' money on the Reds, the Bengals, these big companies,'' Webster said. "What does this neighborhood get? Nothing."

Randy Kleine walked the festival grounds Sunday afternoon selling raffle tickets. He and his wife, a counselor at St. Lawrence School, live in Milford, but Kleine operated a building materials firm called Kleine & Sons in Hartwell for 22 years.

Several years ago, he moved his business from Hartwell to Woodlawn because of crime problems.

"The police were great; they wanted to help. But they didn't have the resources," Kleine said. "The city did nothing.

"Small businesses like mine leave the city all the time and City Hall doesn't bat an eye," Kleine said. "But a Convergys can get whatever it wants."

Across town at the Ridge Days festival in Pleasant Ridge's community park, another small businessman, Charles Devereaux, worked a booth and sold his wares to the hundreds of Pleasant Ridge residents strolling the grounds.

Devereaux is co-owner of Downtown Fashions, a company that sells traditional African and "Afrocentric" clothing for men and women.

Sunday, he had a full line of African-inspired clothing in his booth, but it was the $1 wooden flutes and "liquid yo-yos" that brought kids to his booth.

Devereaux had just heard about the Convergys deal that morning on the radio. Something about it, he said, "didn't seem right."

"We're operating a small business in an up-and-down, yo-yo economy and I'd like to know who is going to help me," he said.

If the Convergys deal is approved by City Council, Devereaux said, City Hall runs the risk of having "every business downtown, big and small, lined up around City Hall for their piece of the pie. Where does it end?"

Others may follow

That is what Joanna Chappell of Price Hill wanted to know, too. She was at the Pleasant Ridge festival, gathering signatures on a petition for her favorite presidential candidate, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and watching her 3-year-old granddaughter play.

"I'm embarrassed to say I haven't even heard of this Convergys thing," Chappell said.

"I can understand the idea of wanting to keep jobs in the city, but this seems like an awful big amount of money to me. Everything seems to be moving out of the city and that's going to kill the tax base."

Her granddaughter's father, Roy Hill of Camp Washington, sitting with Chappell in the Pleasant Ridge gazebo, had heard about the Convergys deal and was against it. "First, they do it for one company," Hill said, "then they do it for another, and another and another."

Chappell, though, had doubts that council would approve the Convergys tax breaks.

"This is Cincinnati City Council we are talking about," Chappell said. "They're not really known for bold moves."


E-mail hwilkinson@enquirer.com

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