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Why can't anyone put a sales tax issue on the ballot?

Tana Weingartner
Supporters of the so-called "icon tax" wanted commissioners to approve a sales tax to repair Union Terminal and Music Hall. Commissioners vote 2-1 in favor of a proposal to only fund repairs at Union Terminal.

Last week Hamilton County Commissioners decided not to put on the November ballot a requested quarter cent sales tax to repair Music Hall and Union Terminal. The move prompted a procedural question for some listeners, so I went looking for an answer.

Any time I report on a possible county sales or property tax, two questions tend to come up.

  1. Why can't anyone just collect a bunch of signatures and put a tax on the ballot?
  2. Why does Hamilton County's Tax Levy Review Committee (TLRC) have to, well, review tax levies?

I put the first question to Dinsmore and Shohl attorney Brad Ruwe who specializes in public finance.

"It is something that has to be initiated by the legislative leaders of the county," says Ruwe. "And that can only be done in accordance with the laws that are out there. So right now, the way that the Ohio Revised Code reads is there are a number of ways to put a sales tax on the ballot."

And a bunch of petition signatures isn't one of them. So the short answer is 'because Ohio Revised Code says so.'

Now, Ruwe says that could be changed, but it would take an act of the state legislature to change Ohio law. The idea behind this, of course, is that there is a larger picture of debt and taxation and our leaders are elected to make sure we don't feel the need to replicate the Boston Tea Party in Lake Erie or the Ohio River.

"I'm not making a political judgment on this but, for better or for worse, they make determinations that are supposed to, in theory, protect us by having limitations on the amount of taxation you can put out there."

Hamilton County's Tax Levy Review Committee exists to help county leaders vet potential taxes. Current Chair Tom Cooney says, "The commissioners are probably not going to individually spend as much time looking at these issues as we do. So if it's not our committee doing it, it's going to be some other staff person that does it."

So to answer question two: the TLRC is not actually required. County leaders created it in 1995 to review levy requests and challenge agencies who spend tax dollars, to do so effectively and efficiently.

"Over the years, we've helped insure that the taxpayers get a good value for what they're getting; that the taxpayers can be assured that there's been a thorough vetting of issues that go on the ballot {and} that the organizations that are recipients of levy dollars use those dollars wisely," says Cooney.

Cooney is also quick to point out the TLRC serves purely in an advisory capacity. It makes recommendations to county commissioners but ultimately the commissioners can do whatever they want.

*Update on levy status*

The Cincinnati Museum Center Board of Trustees is asking its management to gather additional information before deciding whether to endorse a $170 million sales tax ballot issue to make repairs to Union Terminal. 

The trustees issued a statement following a meeting Wednesday afternoon.  An e-mailed statement says the board is actively considering the implications of the Hamilton County Commissioners Policy Resolution related to the upcoming ballot issue. 

Instead of approving the requested sales tax to repair both Music Hall and Union Terminal, two of the three commissioners instead approved a five year, quarter cent sales tax increase for the November ballot, which would fund repairs at Union Terminal only. It is unclear how that plan would work.