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Environment

What's inside the Great Parks of Hamilton County levy request on the November ballot

Buckeye Falls at Sharon Woods
Courtesy Great Parks of Hamilton County
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Hamilton County voters are being asked to consider an additional levy request from the county park system. Great Parks is running a 10-year, .95 mill levy on the November ballot.

If approved, it's estimated to cost homeowners roughly $33.25 a year per $100,000 of home valuation. That's in addition to the current levy (which runs through 2026) that costs about $30 per $100,000 of home value.

"We've been working on a one mill levy since the '80s and we've expanded - we've grown almost 7,000 acres during that time span - and the one mill on the tax side isn't effective in terms of covering the budget that we need for our expenses because we've grown," says Todd Palmeter, CEO of Great Parks of Hamilton County.

One huge need, Palmeter says, is infrastructure, "all the back-of-house stuff it takes to run a park system." If approved, a large chunk of the additional revenue would be used for things like roads, parking areas, building maintenance and improvements, bridges, dams and utilities.

Tangibly, some of the biggest projects people would see affect the harbor areas at Winton Woods, Sharon Woods and Miami Whitewater Forest, which Great Parks says are the district's most visited amenities at its three busiest parks.

"You're going to see a lot of changes in our three harbors, whether it's playgrounds - traditional play, wet play. You're going to see changes in fishing access, lake habitat. We're going to try to open up more views to the lake. We're going to be doing work on all three harbors," he says.

That includes dredging like what's currently underway at Sharon Woods. Winton Lake at Winton Woods is also due for dredging. The lakes serve as stormwater retention basins and are part of the region's stormwater management system.

New trails and trail systems - identified as a top priority in the recently completed master planning process - also top the list. Miles of new trails are planned. New programming would also be instituted.

What happens if the levy doesn't pass?

If voters turn down the levy request, Palmeter says operations will continue as they are currently with no new projects unless grant funds become available. He says that means parking lots and paved trails wouldn't be resurfaced/fixed and might need to be closed for safety reasons.

Basic utilities could also be closed.

"We have wastewater treatment systems ... if we can't improve our systems then we can't flush toilets, we can't have people in certain facilities and buildings. ... The outdoor space will remain open, what will get impacted is indoor space or specific facilities or amenities. Even playgrounds - we have an internal inspection process on playgrounds and if we inspect a playground and there's too many safety issues and we don't have the funding to replace it, we'll have to just close the playground."

Under current projections the additional levy would generate more than $200 million over the 10 years. The district aims to raise $50 million in philanthropic giving, and generate additional dollars through increases in earned revenue such as fees for services - program fees, fishing permits, camping permits, etc.

WVXU asked Palmeter about criticism from some that the county park district isn't active within the city of Cincinnati. Palmeter disputes the idea that it has no presence. He points out Great Parks operates Fernbank Park along the Ohio River and Otto Armleder Memorial Park & Recreation Complex. Great Parks is also converting the 22-acre former Gamble estate in Westwood into a park and opened the new nature center at The Summit in Roselawn. It has also agreed to maintain the Oasis Trail, and is building the Beechmont Bridge Connector.

"We're very present in the city," he concludes, noting the park district also works with Cincinnati Public Schools.

Why now?

Great Parks' board in 2020 initially approved a larger levy request that would have appeared on last November's ballot. The board voted July 16, 2020 to ask voters for a 10-year, 1.8 mill levy during the November election. It reversed course three weeks later after public reaction indicated little desire to approve such a large increase.

In response to questions about the timing - asking for an increase during a pandemic - Palmeter says the needs aren't going away. He also notes the park district reduced its request from the original one last year.

"I've also heard 'There's other taxes on the ballot, wait until next year.' If I wait until next year then there will probably be more county-wide issues on the ballot. Honestly, there will be no good year where there won't be multiple levies on the ballot. My goal has been to reduce our ask and, not get by, but reduce our ask and do some really great, wonderful things for the parks and address the most critical items first and see what the next five to 10 years brings us and adjust as necessary."

Palmeter was also a guest on WVXU's Cincinnati Edition in August. You can hear his conversation with host Michael Monks here.