A recent Enquirer article by veteran reporter Barry Horstman blew the cover on what some local arts and civic activists have been quietly talking about for years. There is a plan to persuade Hamilton County voters to increase our local sales tax to fund repairs and upgrades for key arts venues: Music Hall, Union Terminal, the Cincinnati Zoo and the Cincinnati Art Museum.

The plan being vetted involves a .25 percent or .50 percent increase from the current 6.5 percent local sales tax, to raise an annual pot of $30 to $60 million.

A new board comprised of pooh-bahs from local government and arts institutions would "split the pot" among projects including the backlog of $150 million in repairs needed for Union Terminal, home of the Museum Center, or the proposed $165 million renovation of Music Hall.

Ignoble Tradition

While the county commission would certainly not dare the wrath of the public (let alone local disciples of Grover Norquist) by imposing this tax increase on their own, the question is whether they will let voters decide, and how the public may react.

Special purpose levies of this type are an ignoble Hamilton County tradition. The public is loathe to approve an open-ended tax for any "general fund," but we have a notoriously soft heart and open wallet for a sympathetic cause when the right heart strings are tugged.

Children Services? Who can say no to kids?

Senior Services? We'll all become curmudgeons some day.

Mental Health, Indigent Care or Developmental Disabilities? Are we heartless?

Museum Center? Springer crooned, and we saved Union Terminal.

New homes for Reds and Bengals? Didn't want them to move to Nap-Town or LA.

Zoo? Had to save Marge's elephants.

Add in the Public Library of Hamilton County and Cincinnati, county parks and Job & Family Services, and before you know it there are 11 separate real estate tax line items that total $451.99 each year on a house worth $100,000. Of that, only $67.09, or 15 percent, goes to the county general fund.

Mixed Bag

Of course, the proposed "arts tax" would go on the sales tax, not the real estate tax. The good part: out-of-towners who come to enjoy Cincinnati will pay a little toll every time they belly up to the bar at a Reds game, or at Nada before a night at the Aronoff.

But it would also add a few more cents to the shopping tab of a single mom unlikely to spend her Friday nights at the symphony.

Of course, there are limits on the "tax me, please" impulse of local voters. Remember the fancy new jail that Sheriff Si Leis wanted?

Some folks actually liked the idea that there might be no more room at his inn. And many local school boards have a very tough sell persuading folks who don't have kids in their schools to vote for their levies.

So, will voters see an "arts tax" more like the "feel good" zoo or indigent care levies, or more like the doomed request for a new jail that maybe we didn't really need?

The framing already has begun.

You can hear COAST and at least one county commissioner, Chris Monzel, making those "if the city can afford that stupid streetcar"¢." sounds.

And the risk is that an open-ended arts levy that could benefit any number of institutions "” from the zoo to the art museum "” may be a little too much like a "general fund," with no stronger an appeal than its least popular component. (Check out the nasty Enquirer comments about the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.)

Some will wonder why the "elites" who patronize the ballet or symphony can't fix up their own clubhouses.

"Joe Norwood" may be a little more reluctant to pick up the tab for a more intimate, better foot-room experience for La Traviata at Music Hall, than he was to build a new home field for Mr. Red.

As one of those guys that Chris Finney would accuse of never seeing a tax levy he didn't love, I surely would support this effort to marshal resources for these important local institutions through a modest sales tax increase.

But supporters should not underestimate the romancing of local skeptics it will require. - 

Don Mooney is a partner at the Cincinnati office of Ulmer & Berne, LLC and is active in local politics. He served on the Cincinnati Planning Commission.