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Counter Points is written by WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson. In it, he shares insights on political news on the local, state and national level that impacts the 2020 election. Counter Points is delivered once a week on Wednesdays and will cease publication soon after the November election is decided.

Issue 7 SORTA Levy Too Close To Call After Unofficial Vote Count

metro bus
Bill Rinehart

For now, Hamilton County voters narrowly approved a ballot measure to increase the sales tax to pay for transit. But in the unofficial count, the margin of victory was only 625 votes, and the result could change with the official count next month. 

65,943 voters cast ballots voting yes, and 65,318 voted no when the results from the delayed March primary election were released early Wednesday morning.

The fate of the levy will ultimately be decided by 14,736 outstanding absentee ballots that could be counted, plus another 4,280 provisional ballots that could be included in the official count.

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority placed the 0.8% sales tax increase on the ballot because it said the current funding model to pay for Metro bus operations was broken.

Pete Metz is the manager of transportation initiatives for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, which had worked for five years on the issue. He said the region needs better transportation to access local talent and attract new talent to the area.

"Hamilton County needs critical new investment in our transportation system and we look forward to monitoring the Board of Elections process to make sure that every vote is counted and that every voter who followed the new procedure had their vote counted and is part of this election," Metz said.

Currently, people who live or work in Cincinnati are paying a 0.3% earnings tax to fund SORTA. But the agency said that wasn't enough revenue and it was projecting huge deficits if there were no changes. 

If Issue 7 ultimately passes, the city's transit earnings tax will go away. City voters approved a Charter amendment in November repealing the city's transit tax if county voters approved a sales tax increase to fund Metro.

That's one reason tax opponents were supportive because the earnings tax will be eliminated and replaced by a sales tax that's paid by everyone in Hamilton County, as well as those who do business in the county. A study conducted when the sales tax was increased to fund Union Terminal renovations found about 50% of people paying the county sales tax are non-residents.

"We have Democrats and Republicans, Independents, business and labor, faith leaders, city and county leaders all coming together around one common sense plan," Metz said. "And that's the plan that ultimately voters said yes to for the first time in history."

Hamilton County's sales tax rate would increase to 7.8%, making it the second highest in Ohio. Cuyahoga County's 8% is the highest. Hamilton County's rate will be the highest in Southwest Ohio. As of April 1, Butler County is at 6.5%, Warren County at 7%, and Clermont's sales tax is 6.75%. Kentucky's statewide sales tax rate is 6%, and Indiana's statewide rate is 7%.

It's unclear when collection of the additional sales tax will begin if approved. It could be July 1 or it may be October 1. The city's transit earnings tax would be eliminated as soon as the sales tax starts being collected.

The transit tax increase would last for 25 years, and is estimated to bring in $130 million a year. That estimate was before the recent sales tax decline because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Seventy-five percent - or about $100 million - of that money would go to SORTA, and the remaining 25%, or roughly $30 million, would be used for road, bridge and infrastructure repairs on routes used by Metro buses or those within three-quarters of a mile of those Metro routes.

How Does This Impact Bus Service?

So, what will the additional money for Metro mean for bus service? Supporters said it includes several things:

  • Buses every 15-20 minutes on most routes
  • 24-hour service on Montgomery, Madison, Hamilton, Glenway, Reading and Vine streets
  • Most routes start earlier and end later
  • Eight new bus routes with crosstown service, eliminating the need to transfer Downtown
  • Extension of major routes to county line
  • Elimination of zone fare in Hamilton County, one low fare and free transfers

What About Roads?

On the infrastructure side, the transit money will be used to make repairs or upgrades to the county's roads and bridges. The Chamber did a study that found the price tag for that work totals nearly $2 billion.

Cincinnati City Council has already approved a resolution saying its top priority for the new funding source would be to replace the aging Western Hills Viaduct.

A group called the Hamilton County Integrating Committee would be the one deciding which infrastructure projects are funded. It's a group made up of county, city and township officials.

Hamilton County, Cincinnati and other cities, villages and townships could apply to this group for funding.  Those applications could be used to fund projects, provide matching funds for state or federal grants to complete projects, and use revenue from the transit tax to repay bonds to pay for infrastructure projects.

Not Everyone Was Supportive

Not everyone is in favor of the sales tax increase, and there were several people who had been sharing their opposition to Issue 7 in social media posts.

Perennial local candidate Jim Berns was opposed, and hosted several "honk and wave" events in recent weeks urging voters to rejected Issue 7. He told WLWT several weeks ago it was a "taxpayer rip-off."

"Everyday we see empty buses driving back and forth down the street, Metro is losing money, it's absolutely crazy to expand the service," Berns told the outlet.

Berns also said the sales tax will be a burden on residents of the county townships who he said "will get nearly nothing from Issue 7 but higher sales tax and more empty buses running more frequently. He is also concerned that "an unelected SORTA Board will distribute the money for highway improvements."

Jay Hanselman brings more than 10 years experience as a news anchor and reporter to 91.7 WVXU. He came to WVXU from WNKU, where he hosted the local broadcast of All Things Considered. Hanselman has been recognized for his reporting by the Kentucky AP Broadcasters Association, the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and the Ohio AP Broadcasters.