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What went wrong when council asked for public feedback on abatement reform

Exterior Cincinnati City Hall during snow
Becca Costello

Cincinnati City Council is considering major changes to the residential tax abatement program. A vote has been delayed for more community engagement, but that engagement has been lackluster at best.

One participant at a public engagement session Monday night said she left feeling more confused about abatements than she was before. Others said they only found out about the meeting by word of mouth, and complained that they didn't understand the presentations.

"I take full credit for all the confusion," Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney told WVXU Wednesday. "I really should have thought of this two months ago when we first started talking about engagement."

There are two more opportunities for engagement. Kearney will host a second session Wednesday night at 5:30 at the Price Hill Recreation Center.

And Mayor Aftab Pureval said Wednesday he's delaying a vote for the fourth time and will host a Town Hall on Thursday, March 23 with Nathan Ivey, host of an online daily talk show.

"There will be a presentation from the administration for the first 30 minutes explaining and educating what a tax abatement is, what the reforms specifically are," Pureval said. "And then Nathan will have an opportunity to ask me any questions that he has, that the community has, to dispel any myths or misinformation, to articulate what our policy goals are and how we're accomplishing them, and to answer any outstanding questions before council votes on it."

The ordinance is now expected to get an initial vote in the Equitable Growth and Housing Committee on Tuesday, March 28 at 1 p.m., followed by a final vote of full council on March 29.

Learn more about public engagement and how to weigh in at the bottom of this story.

How we got here

The residential tax program offers a property tax break for buildings with up to four housing units, but nearly all abatements go to single family homes. (A separate program regulates commercial tax abatements.)

RELATED: How Cincinnati's residential tax abatement program works, and how it could soon change

The public conversation about changing the program dates back to at least 2020, when the Property Tax Working Group recommended a study on changing to a tiered system. City Council appropriated funds for an external report, which was released in June, 2022. Council's Equitable Growth and Housing Committee got a presentation on the results during a meeting in June; a couple months later the Housing Advisory Board got the same presentation and submitted written comments to the Mayor's office in September.

Mayor Aftab Pureval released his proposed ordinance in mid-January, based on the recommendations of the report with a few minor changes. Pureval says he and his office met with dozens of stakeholder groups both before and after introducing the measure, including:

  • Legal Aid
  • Housing Opportunities Made Equal
  • Home Base
  • Community Councils (via Invest in Neighborhoods)
  • Home builders
  • Realtors
  • Community Development Corporations
  • Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Iranetta Wright

"I was very clear when I introduced it to the committee that this was a first draft, and that has been the case," Pureval said. "We're now on our third draft, and every iteration has made it stronger and more targeted to what we're trying to accomplish here."

Engagement at City Council

The process seems to have broken down once Council took over and started hearing opposition from some residents.

The Equitable Growth and Housing Committee first heard public comment during its Tuesday afternoon meeting on January 31.

The committee made a few changes to the ordinance on February 14 and Chair Jeff Cramerding scheduled a vote for February 28. Instead, council members amended the ordinance again and Chair Jeff Cramerding delayed the vote again until March 14.

Not long after, Cramerding announced a third delay until March 21, scheduling a special session during the off-week of his bi-weekly committee.

"We delayed the vote to get more community engagement," Cramerding told WVXU this week. "You're always trying to find the appropriate balance between community engagement and efficacy, because you can talk about almost any issues until it's no longer productive."

RELATED: City's residential tax abatements disproportionately benefit high-income, white neighborhoods

Vice Mayor Kearney says it was important to have an evening meeting outside of City Hall to make it more accessible to the public.

She briefly scheduled a special session of her own committee, Healthy Neighborhoods, for Saturday, March 4. It was announced on February 27 and canceled less than 24 hours later.

Then, Kearney scheduled two special sessions of Healthy Neighborhoods: March 13 and 15. It would have been a tough week for the Council Clerk's office, who were already scheduled to work evening overtime for a public budget hearing on March 14 and an unrelated Healthy Neighborhoods meeting on March 16. So Kearney decided to convert the meetings to "public engagement sessions" and cancel the official committee meetings. That notice went out Friday, March 10.

Who should take the lead on engagement?

Why have public hearings in Healthy Neighborhoods and not the committee where the legislation will actually be voted on, Equitable Growth and Housing?

"I did offer to do additional community engagement as the issue was in my committee," Cramerding said.

But Kearney wanted a particular person to present at a public meeting: Bob Newman, an attorney representing Black homeowners who are suing the city over the current residential abatement program.

Cramerding says he was not comfortable with that.

"In my judgment — as an attorney and as a council member — it would not be appropriate to have an adverse litigant present in front of a council committee," he said. "To present in front of my council committee."

Kearney feels strongly that Newman should have more time (other than the two minutes allowed during usual public comment) to present his ideas.

"It's difficult to say to someone who's been at the forefront of tax abatement reform, has really been pushing for it, that he doesn't get to speak," Kearney said. "We're not debating with anyone, we're not discussing the lawsuit, really our focus is on our new policy."

Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney (at podium) hosted the first of two public engagement sessions at Bethany House Services in Bond Hill on Monday, March 13.
Becca Costello
Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney (at podium) hosted the first of two public engagement sessions at Bethany House Services in Bond Hill on Monday, March 13.

The first meeting, at Bethany House Services in Bond Hill, featured the lawsuit extensively. Newman presented his reasons for filing the class action suit, outlined his reasons for opposing the ordinance under consideration, and passed out his business card to residents who said they're interested in joining the lawsuit. He even presented his proposal for a settlement agreement.

"I've never heard of a lawyer making an offer of settlement publicly," Newman said Monday.

His proposal includes having the city give some neighborhoods tax abatements of up to 20 years, something not possible under Ohio state law.

"Some of his ideas are actually really good," Kearney said. "That's not one of them."

Kearney and Scotty Johnson were the only council members present; two other members, Meeka Owens and Seth Walsh, sent a staff member. Some Council Members say the city solicitor's office advised against attending. If three or more members were present, that would constitute a quorum of committee and become an official public meeting.

"So that created a problem that, Oh, no, everybody can't be there to actually hear," Kearney said. "So it was really a compromise."

Kearney is hopeful the next meeting Wednesday night will be more informative and productive.

What's next and how to weigh in

Committee Chair Jeff Cramerding is eager to pass the ordinance, saying the subject has received more than its fair share of attention. He says he's ready to move on to other policy priorities.

"I would rather spend the bandwidth, the time and resources, talking about [housing] affordability and real solutions, as opposed to belaboring this debate on tax abatements which I view as misguided," Cramerding said.

But Mayor Pureval announced a fourth delay on Wednesday afternoon, giving time for one final public engagement session.

The ordinance is set for a vote in committee on Tuesday, March 28 at 1 p.m. If it passes, it will be up for a final vote of full council the next day.

Learn more about tax abatements, the current program, and how it would change under the current ordinance: How Cincinnati's residential tax abatement program works, and how it could soon change

Public Meetings:

  • Wednesday, March 15 at 5:30 p.m. at the Price Hill Recreation Center (hosted by Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney)
  • Thursday, March 23 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Corinthian Baptist Church (hosted by Mayor Aftab Pureval. Submit questions in advance to This meeting will be livestreamed and archived on CitiCable.
Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.