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Great Parks Reverses Course On Levy Request

Summer wildflowers in bloom at Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve.
Tana Weingartner
Summer wildflowers in bloom at Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve.

Updated Aug. 5, 2020

Less than three weeks after approving a levy request for the November ballot, Great Parks of Hamilton County commissioners have repealed that decision. A special meeting was held Wednesday, Aug. 5 at 3 p.m.

A levy of some form is expected to be brought forward again in 2021. In the meantime, existing budgetary and facilities cuts will remain in place, says Todd Palmeter, CEO of Great Parks.

Commissioners Geraldine Warner and Marcus Thompson both expressed that the need for an additional levy still exists but said the time - in the midst of a pandemic and bad economy - was not right.

"The need is there. ... Our job as commissioners is to be good stewards of what has been given to us," said Thompson, board president. "We will continue to work with our community partners, work with each other, work with Todd (Palmeter), to make sure that when the time comes we will have everything ready to go and the perception will be a bit different."

"I think the timing, perhaps, was unfortunate," said Warner. "There's just so much going on in the city and county ... and also everybody's lives have changed. So sometime in the future, perhaps, better planning but the need is still there."

The board voted July 16 to ask voters for a 10-year, 1.8 mill levy during the November election. This would be in addition to the current 10-year, one mill levy that runs through 2026.

The response on social media sites after the initial decision were mixed.

"It's because the response that we received from our community was something we did not expect," Director of Marketing and Public Engagement Jennifer Sivak told WVXU the day before the board's second vote. "However, it is important that we listen and keep an open mind to better understand the current needs and priorities of our community, and while people support and love their parks, it's really our responsibility to examine all concerns and variables including the consideration of removing this from the ballot."

Great Parks recently completed a new master plan which includes infrastructure improvements and adding things like new trails based on community feedback. Palmeter told WVXU at the time of the initial vote, "We want to do those things but in order to do those things we're going to need additional funding to support them."

When asked then about the timing of the levy - in the middle of a pandemic and economic slump - Palmeter said levy advisors tell them this is actually a good time. Parks were some of the few places to stay open when the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown began.

"We've had record-setting trail attendance numbers and visitation numbers and they continue to be higher than they were last year. Every month we continue to set new attendance records over last year."

However, responses from many in the public suggest there's little desire to increase property taxes for parks right now.

"How dare the Parks Board even consider trying to get an additional tax imposed on property owners at a time when we are all struggling due to the coronavirus," one Facebook user wrote on the Great Parks Facebook page.

Palmeter says he spoke with local business and civic leaders throughout the county after the levy proposal in July and the response was also not good given the economic climate.

Some people also voiced objections to the amount of the proposed levy. It levy would have cost about $63 per year for every $100,000 of home value, or $5.25 per month, on top of the current levy amount of $34.40 annually per $100,000 of home value.

Try Again In 2021

Earlier this year, as it was evident the coronavirus pandemic wasn't going away, Great Parks cut its budget by $4.7 million. Those cuts will remain in place through 2020 and the park district in a statement says it expects "this financial impact will continue into 2021."

Palmeter says Great Parks will try for another additional levy next year. It's unclear if it will be for the same amount because there are a slew of other levies that come up for renewal or increase then.

"People (told him) there will be a lot better support in 2021, however, I did raise concern that we won't be the only ones in '21 - the list will be very long in '21. My concern is the need's not going to change. The 1.8 mill is the need we've identified through our capital infrastructure and master plan and that need won't change between now and next year. If there's several agencies on the ballot, our ask may have to be much less because there's going to be so many people asking for property taxes or sales taxes."

This article was first published on Aug. 4, 2020 and has been updated. 

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Tana Weingartner earned a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in mass communication from Miami University. Most recently, she served as news and public affairs producer with WMUB-FM. Ms. Weingartner has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including several Best Reporter awards from the Associated Press and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and a regional Murrow Award. She served on the Ohio Associated Press Broadcasters Board of Directors from 2007 - 2009.