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Cincinnati Voters Could See Part One Of Transit Levy In November

Michael Keating

Cincinnati voters could see a Charter amendment on the November 2019 ballot that could reduce the city's earning tax by 0.3 percent if Hamilton County voters approve a sales tax increase to fund public transit in 2020.
A council committee approved the ballot measure Tuesday, and the full City Council will likely vote on it Wednesday evening. It takes six "yes" votes from council members to place a Charter amendment on the ballot.

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, and a coalition of supporters, is considering placing a sales tax increase on the ballot in 2020 to pay for Metro bus operations and to make infrastructure improvements in the county.

The SORTA board has not decided if that issue will appear on the March primary ballot or during the November general election.  It also hasn't decided the amount of the increase, which could range from a half-cent to a full cent.

If city voters approve the November Charter amendment and county voters approve the sales tax question, the city's earnings tax would drop to 1.8 percent instead of the current 2.1 percent.

Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld said the November issue will set the stage for the possible levy vote in 2020.

"This is very straightforward, wanting to give people the confidence when they go to the polls sometime in 2020 and are voting on this transportation and infrastructure package, that they're not going to be double-taxed because that piece was already put to bed in November of 2019," Sittenfeld said.

Council Member Chris Seelbach voted against placing the Charter amendment on the ballot.  

"Lowering our income tax by 0.3 percent when we already have the lowest income (tax) rate of any major city in Ohio, knowing we will continue to struggle with budget deficits, just doesn't make good fiscal sense," Seelbach said.

He again blamed the city's ongoing budget deficits on Republicans in Columbus for "decimating" the local government fund and stripping needed revenues from the city.

The Better Bus Coalition sent a tweet Tuesday morning endorsing the city's November Charter amendment.

"While the Better Bus Coalition would prefer to retain a portion of the earnings tax as a revenue source, we endorse the amendment because of the growing bipartisan support to put a SORTA sales tax levy on the ballot in 2020," the group said.

The city's 0.3 percent transit tax was created in 1972 to fund SORTA operations.  There was a similar measure in 1979 to repeal the transit tax if county voters approved a sales tax increase to fund SORTA, but that ballot measure was unsuccessful.

The SORTA board has warned for years of an operating deficit, and has been looking for solutions, including fare increases, service reductions and a sales tax.

The "Reinventing Metro" plan found a half-cent sales tax would maintain current service levels. Amounts above that would allow for increased service, including crosstown routes, 24-hour service on major routes, and more weekend hours.  The plan could also include funds to pay for road and bridge repairs on Metro routes to make the ballot issue more appealing to voters who don't rely on public transit.

In July, Hamilton County commissioners said they will not support a one cent sales tax increase to benefit mass transit. In a letter to SORTA, commissioners said they would get behind a smaller increase.

The letter said there are other demands on the county sales tax, including infrastructure and public safety, "and we believe that any proposed increase must be viewed in that context."

Commissioners wrote they could support up to seven-tenths of a cent, saying that would raise $110 million a year for SORTA. They also say they would support keeping the city's earning tax as part of Metro's revenue.

The Better Bus Coalition also said it would support seven-tenths of a cent sales tax increase for the SORTA levy.