For the first time in history, Hamilton County voters have approved a county-wide tax levy to pay for transit.
The Hamilton County Board of Elections Thursday released certified results from the delayed March primary that showed Issue 7, to provide an 0.8% sales tax increase for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) was approved by 980 votes.
The final vote count was 67,698 voting yes and 66,718 voting no.
That margin does not trigger the need for a recount by the board of elections.
The winning margin increased when remaining absentee and provisional ballots were included in the count. Unofficial results released on April 29 had Issue 7 passing by 625 votes.
At least three other previous attempts, going back to the 1970's, to approve a county-wide levy were rejected by voters.
On October 1, the Hamilton County sales tax rate will increase to 7.8%. That will make it the second highest rate in the state of Ohio, and the highest rate in Southwest Ohio.
75% of the money from the increased sales tax will be used to fund SORTA operations and improve Metro bus service in the region. The remaining 25% will be used for road and bridge projects, and that likely will include funds to help Cincinnati and the county replace the aging Western Hill Viaduct.
SORTA placed the issue on the ballot because it said the current funding model to pay for Metro bus operations was broken.
The transit tax increase will last for 25 years, and before the COVID-19 pandemic was expected to bring in $130 million a year. Those numbers will likely be changed as economic activity has slowed because of the virus and businesses being shut down.
"The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority is appreciative of the confidence voters have placed in us by investing in the services we provide," said SORTA Board Chairman Kreg Keesee in a prepared statement. "We look forward to working with the community to implement the Reinventing Metro plan and to partner with local governments to fix critical infrastructure in Hamilton County."
That plan calls for more frequent buses, 24-hour service on some route, an extended schedule for some routes, and eight new bus routes with crosstown service.
For people who live or work in the city of Cincinnati, the passage of Issue 7 means the 0.3% portion of the city earnings tax for transit will be going away. The city's earning tax will drop to 1.8% on October 2.
Even though there was some opposition to Issue 7, some previous tax opponents were supportive this time because the earnings tax will be eliminated and replaced by a sales tax that's paid by everyone in Hamilton County, and those who do business in the county.
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and several city council members urged passage of Issue 7.
"There have been many efforts for literally the past half century to do something like this, all of which had previously fallen short," said Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld in a text. "This victory is an amazing achievement, that will be transformative for the future of our region. Especially while facing the challenges from this pandemic, passage of this levy provides a powerful spark to help ignite our comeback."
For road and bridge projects, 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.