Fate of Music Hall, Union Terminal illustrates divide between Cincinnati, Hamilton County

Cranley to county: You want icons? Let's talk

CINCINNATI – Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said Friday that if Hamilton County commissioners object to a sales tax increase to help renovate city-owned Union Terminal and Music Hall, he's willing to negotiate a deal to transfer ownership.

"We're the owners of these buildings in name only," Cranley told WCPO. "The leases clearly state that we have no obligation to maintain them."

A Cultural Facilities Task Force comprised of business and community leaders has proposed a $331 million plan to renovate Union Terminal and Music Hall. The plan calls for a quarter-cent increase in the Hamilton County sales tax to fund the bulk of the repairs. Such an increase would raise the rate from 6.75 cents on the dollar to 7 cents on the dollar.

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Hamilton County commissioners must decide by Aug. 6 whether to put the so-called "icon tax" on the November ballot.

Commissioner Greg Hartmann said he wouldn't support putting the measure on the ballot to fix both buildings unless city officials make a larger financial contribution to the plan.

The current financing plan includes $10 million that the city previously pledged to help revitalize Music Hall in Over-the-Rhine. Hartmann said he would like to see the city pledge millions more to make repairs to Dalton Street and the expansive plaza outside Union Terminal in Queensgate. Otherwise, he said, he would want to see Music Hall taken out of the proposal.

Cranley said an additional city contribution would amount to "double taxation" since city residents also would pay the increased sales tax when paying for purchases made in Hamilton County.

But Hartmann noted that increasing the sales tax is a matter of the county's taxing authority. If county commissioners pave the way for a quarter-cent increase to help Union Terminal and Music Hall, he said, that would take away the ability to use that taxing authority to finance other county maintenance needs.

"I can't remember the last time the city voted to do anything with their taxing authority to fund a county facility," Hartmann said.

Cranley said he hasn't gotten a detailed presentation of the proposed plan, but he likes the idea of giving voters "a chance to save these buildings."

"And if the county voters want to put some $300 million into these buildings, we're happy to negotiate," he said. "If they want to use the ownership issue to say we (in the city) should somehow pay twice, I'd be open to negotiating county ownership."

Hartmann called such a suggestion "worse than the way we are now." The county's taking ownership of the buildings would make it responsible for them long-term, he said.

"Today, the city at least contributes to their maintenance. That's him playing games," Hartmann said. "If the city wants Music Hall included in this, they'll come to the table."

Hartmann is one of three county commissioners who will decide whether the sales tax proposal makes it onto the November ballot.

Commissioner Todd Portune told WCPO that he continues to study the issue and is trying to come up with a plan that has "the right balance of funding" from various contributors, including the city and private users of the two facilities.

"The sales tax is the final piece of the puzzle but only comes in after we have resolved all of the other issues, maximized contributions from everybody else and minimized the amount of money that's absolutely necessary," Portune said.

If county taxpayers end up contributing the bulk of the funds for the project, he added, the city and county should discuss who would own the buildings after the projects are completed.

Commissioner Chris Monzel was traveling and could not be reached Friday.

Hamilton County commissioners will host public hearings on the proposal before making their decision.

• The first hearing is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. July 23 at Sharonville Convention Center.

• The second hearing is scheduled to start at 11 a.m. July 28 at the County Administration Building downtown.

To hear Hartmann’s thoughts on the issue and the differences between the city and the county’s stance, watch the interview in the player above.

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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