Hamilton Co. Park Board changes course, won’t pursue 2020 levy

Hamilton Co. Park Board changes course, won’t pursue 2020 levy
Great Parks of Hamilton County has decided against putting a 1.8 mill levy to the voters in November. (Source: WXIX)

CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Great Parks of Hamilton County has chosen delay its previously announced levy until 2021, according to Great Parks CEO Todd Palmeter.

Palmeter announced the news in a letter sent to community leaders Wednesday night, the same day tax levy submissions were due to the Hamilton County Board of Elections, according to our media partners at the Enquirer.

Originally announced July 16, the proposed 1.8-mil tax levy would have gone before voters in November.

If approved, the levy would have begun in 2021 and lasted until 2031, costing homeowners $63 per $100,000 of their home’s value annually, Great Parks explained when announcing the levy in July.

Great Parks is currently funded by a 1-mil tax levy that began in 2017 and ends in 2026, according to the same announcement. Additional funding comes from earned revenue, grants, philanthropic donations and public-private partnerships.

With an annual budget of $34.7 million, Great Parks manages more than 17,700 acres of land, 21 parks and nature preserves and 78 miles of trails.

The new levy was intended in part to execute the organization’s 2019 master plan. Among other goals, the plan aims to expand regional trails, increase access to nature and provide more educational opportunities to diverse audiences.

COVID-19 appears to have deepened the need for the extra money.

Explaining the park board’s initial decision to move forward with the levy in July, Palmeter said Wednesday:

“It is clear that people need their parks now more than ever. And while we have been thrilled to keep our parks open to serve our residents, Great Parks has not been immune from the financial impacts of the pandemic.

To account for massive lost earned revenue, we have had to cut our budget by $4.7 million for 2020 alone and this financial impact will continue in 2021. This put Great Parks in a position where, in order to address over $60 million in critical infrastructure while also meeting the needs of the community evidenced in the Master Plan, the Board made the decision to place an additional 1.8 mill tax levy on the November ballot.”

The blowback was significant.

Hamilton County Commission President Denise Driehaus told the Enquirer: “I’m a little concerned about the process. I’m concerned about the timing in addition to the amount of money being requested. I worry about the impact to the rest of the levies (in the future).”

Fellow Commissioner Alicia Reece followed, telling the Enquirer: “I’m not against the parks, but I don’t think the timing is right from what I’m hearing from the voters. They can’t afford a tax increase right now.”

(The Enquirer reports Great Parks are among a handful of county agencies in which the commissioners have no oversight or say on levies.)

Wednesday Palmeter acknowledged the criticism as a factor in walking back the levy.

“While people support and love their parks, a variety of reasons and motivations exist making it clear that now is not the right time,” he said. “Given this information, the Board has decided to not place a levy on the ballot this November.”

Palmeter says Great Parks will have to limit access to certain areas of parks, minimize services, close some facilities and amenities and reduce programming and educational opportunities as it looks to deal with its pandemic-related revenue loss.

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