In fact, when my kids were little our family was a regular subscriber and visitor to the Museum Center at Union Terminal. We still attend the occasional IMAX movie there. And we like taking out-of-town visitors there. As far as the finer arts, we are more likely to attend a Broadway-style show at the Aronoff than a ballet at Music Hall, but we appreciate the value of that historic building. It is indeed an anchor of the welcome revival of the OTR neighborhood. And so, in full support of these structures, I will be donating funds towards their renovation.
But I do not support raising sales taxes upon our poorest, neediest neighbors to pay the lion's share of the estimated $330 million project. And I do not understand how so many of my progressive friends can so easily and so enthusiastically support such a regressive tax. I hope the county commission delays putting the sales tax on the ballot until a much better balance between public and private funding is achieved. And I would prefer not having any sales tax increase at all. If the current sales tax proposal does get placed on the ballot, I will vote against it and campaign against it even more than I'm doing now. Here are five suggestions that, if achieved even in part, could change my view:
1. The rich must pay much, much more than currently proposed. Music Hall was built entirely with private money. The city donated a horrible old park/cemetery and that was pretty much it for official public support. Yet now we are to believe that the private sector cannot afford to pay more than $40 million towards the renovations? That's roughly 12 percent of the total cost. That's just not good enough. I think the rich, nearly rich and the upper middle class should be paying at least 50 percent of the renovation costs.
With the fairly recent deaths of great local philanthropists like Carl Lindner, Louise Nippert, Patricia Corbett and Lois Rosenthal, it may be true that Cincinnati has fewer powerful and civic-minded citizens. But that doesn't mean the ones who are left cannot afford to pick up $150 million for this important project.
A few years ago, I saw an article estimating that Ohio had at least 1,300 residents with personal worth exceeding $30 million each, a figure that includes a few billionaires and several 100-millionaires. But for discussion's sake, let's assume they all have just $30 million each. I think it would be a fair guess to say one fourth of those rich Ohio people live in Greater Cincinnati. That would mean about 325 people here are worth a combined $ 9.7 billion. If these one tenth of the 1 percenters merely donated 1 percent of their gargantuan wealth beyond what they already give (assuming they do give) that would be $97 million. And in this scenario we haven't even collected a dime from the many, many more people in our town worth between $1 million and $30 million. Nor anything from the $500,000 and $100,000 people.
The allegation that the richest people of our town cannot kick in more than $40 million just reeks of selfish, greedy, non-citizenship. The uber-wealthy of America have never had it better in their lifetimes than they do right now. Their tax rates have done nothing but plummet. Their stocks have soared to all-time records. Their profits -- if held in corporations -- are generally at record levels as well. And then there are the funds hidden overseas that we don't know about.
These people are sitting silently, discreetly, like dragons on mounds of gold. But they allege they don't have much money. They would have us believe that poor people DO have money -- despite a decade of stagnant wages and no increases in minimum wages. They would have us believe that the poor and modest income people who only rarely attend orchestra concerts and museum exhibits, should dig deeper to pay higher taxes to finance entertainment aimed at, intended for and consumed primarily by the rich. I don't buy that line of thought even a little, even if it is true that Cincinnati has fewer rich business titans that it used to have.
2. The people seeking these forms of entertainment are not being asked to pay enough in the proposed icon tax plan. The patrons of Music Hall, especially, but also the Museum Center are overwhelmingly NOT poor, nor even lower middle class. Yes, these caring non-profit organizations do provide some programs that bring poor school kids in for cheap or free shows and exhibits, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Families bringing in less than $40,000 a year are not dropping $400 for a series of classical music concerts. Nor $130 for a family pass to the Museum Center.
The people actually paying those ticket prices are middle class and up, and often quite a bit "up." Don't tell me these people cannot afford a 10 percent ticket price increase. And yet the organizations running our icons contend that ANY ticket price increase would chase away customers and be counter productive. Well, if the shows and exhibits are so weak and minimally valued by the public that a ticket increase would LOSE money, then the problems we face in saving our icons are much deeper than the public has been led to believe. But I think the consuming public DOES care about these forms of higher brow entertainment. And I'm quite certain they will willingly pay higher prices to save their icons. Why? Because I would. I would have zero problem paying a few more bucks the next time I visit those places.
So, I won't vote for a sales tax unless the term is shortened by several years through increased revenue from higher ticket prices and more and better shows. If the customers won't pay more why on earth should the NON-customers pay more?
3. The Lumenocity problem. Tens of thousands of thrilled Cincinnati area residents have flocked two years in a row to the terrific light show at Music Hall. And yet, in the middle of demanding a vote for higher taxes on every single resident and money-spending visitor to our great county, this extremely popular event failed to charge a single dime. Scalpers were asking $40 and up on eBay and other sites to sell these free tickets. Obviously there was a hot market, yet the organizations walked away from every bit of the potential revenue. Must not really need the money, huh?
Even with free tickets, supporters of Music Hall should have been walking around the crowd with buckets soliciting donations. Every beer and food item sold at the even should have had a $1 surcharge for the save-our-icons fund. People should have been asked to text a $10 donation right there and then. Did any of that happen? Please tell me at least somebody asked for some money.
I believe every person who attended the Lumenocity event -- and was not poor -- should write a check to Music Hall (or some special fund) equivalent to the estimated average cost of one year of the proposed sales tax hike. I think the latest estimate was $23. Tell me, wasn't the show worth that much? In 2013, an estimated 35,000 people attended the shows. At $23 each, that's $805,000. Over the next 10 years, that would be $8 million. Just from one annual event. Obviously, that won't be enough all by itself. But before you start taking the public's money, I think the true, hard-core fans of these icons should show their willingness to pay a sharply higher share than what has been proposed so far.
I also think the ballet, the opera, the historical society, the natural history museum and any other entities connected to these two icons should be scheduling their own shows and showings for the express purpose of raising money for the save-our-icons project. Yes, the artsy-smartsy bake sale approach. And these events should be conducted without pay to the managers, staff, conductors, choreographers, performers, etc. -- whose careers now depend upon saving these places, right? You want the peoples' money? Then bring the arts and the history to the people in a much, much more aggressive way. Prove you are worth it.
4. Tap the Cincinnati diaspora. Before you try to take money away from single moms trying to put shoes on their kids' feet, I expect to be informed about how the save-the-icons team is reaching out to the people with Cincinnati roots who have retired to the sun belt, and to the local high school and college graduates who have relocated to pursue successful careers but still love Cincinnati. Are the social media campaigns happening? Is Fifth Third Bank, along with other local investment fund managers, putting a save-the-icons flyer in their next pitch to their well-to-do Cincinnati clients? Maybe they are. But I highly doubt many financial institutions will be providing access to their mailing lists, not even in a blinded, privacy protected sort of way. But I would love to be wrong about this. Show me and the rest of the voting public that such efforts are being made.
5. Tap the universe of architects, contractors, consultants, designers and builders. If anybody cares about saving architectural treasures, it should be these folks. So show me how the local ones are donating even more than the average corporate citizen of our city. Show me how some great out-of-town architects are chipping in just because they care about issues like this. Show me the urban planners and professors and preservationists opening their wallets and purses. Show me the folks in the trades offering to put in their sweat equity to get this civic job done right. After all, some of them may end up getting well-paid for their services in this $330 million project. Are the project managers and contractors willing to work at cost, or even less? That would be a nice donation to see. How about getting some pledges and promises BEFORE asking for a tax increase?
I expect more from the so-called creative class. Anybody can jack up a tax. There's nothing at all creative in that sort of approach. And even less creativity is happening when progressives jump on the bandwagon for a regressive tax. In just talking about the icon tax, I've already witnessed a how-dare-you-question-our-idea attitude that was so pervasive among progressives in the Great Streetcar Debate. We don't need such divisiveness. What we need is serious efforts at inclusiveness. How about trying to get some support from COAST (and lots of other independent people) instead of baiting them with approaches they find offensive. Try not to be so reflexively dismissive of questions and suggestions.
I meant it when I said I support the icons. And I really do believe in compromise. That's why I took the time to write this. I'm not a member of the highly desired urban young professional demographic that has been the target of so much Downtown-focused public investment. But I have outlined five ideas that could be pursued to demonstrate fairness to the wider community. I would have thought that progressives would agree that the poorest people among us are the very last people "we" should be taxing to save our icons. And that the richest among us should be paying the most for these types of projects.
Any progress on these five points, any progress at all, reduces the potential burden upon the poor AND increases the necessary contributions from the wealthiest among us. I believe it's a matter of fairness to pursue these ideas. I believe other even more imaginative people might develop even more and better ideas.
So I ask my progressive friends to consider pursuing these ideas for a year, maybe even two, before putting a sales tax on the ballot. Sure, some of the in-the-know crowd have been ruminating over how to fix the icons for a few years already. But only now is the sales tax actually seriously being considered for the ballot. Only now is the wider public becoming engaged -- the very public that will be paying the bill if the tax passes. The very public that still remains bitter and deeply split over the rip-off they endured in the stadium tax fiasco and the nastiness of the streetcar debate. So, I don't care if a delay means some higher costs down the road. I expect local leaders, the true progressives, to do their civic due diligence. Take the time to shop this around. Solicit and obtain consensus. Try listening to people without sticking a deadline in their face. Try adjusting the plan when good ideas emerge.
This town loves its icons. It already supports taxes for the Zoo and other cultural jewels in ways that many, many cities in our great nation do not. The people here probably will support a tax to save Music Hall and Union Terminal. Especially if they see that a serious effort to exhaust reasonable options has been attempted.
As for me, I'd like the progressives to acknowledge that a sales tax really is regressive and hurtful to the poor. Show me the efforts made to minimize the exposure upon poor people and I will be more likely to support a sales tax. But I am not there yet. Not even close. I'd also like to know whether anybody has even considered the following idea:
There could be a better way
If a tax hike is truly necessary, I'd rather see the icons saved via an earned income tax versus a sales tax. That would generate more money from the richest people while protecting the poorest people AND it would protect senior citizens and disabled people who depend upon fixed incomes from Social Security and other programs. It also could collect money from those who work in the city, but do not live in the city (or even Hamilton County), which would be similar to how a sales tax would reach non-locals who spend money in Hamilton County. And a city-based earned income tax would be more city-centric, which would more accurately reflect the ownership of the icons and would more accurately reflect their customer base.