Cuyahoga County Commissioners voted yesterday to raise the county sales tax by a quarter percent. The increase will help finance a new convention center and it is hoped that will attract a medical mart. But, key questions remain about the plan, it's financing, and site location. ideastream's economics reporter Tasha Flournoy has more.
As expected, County Commissioners Jimmy Dimora and Tim Hagan voted in favor of the tax increase and Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones was the lone dissenting vote. Lawson Jones had hoped the commission would look at other tax options to fund the medical mart. Rather than a hike in the general sales tax, he proposed increasing service taxes such as those placed on food, beverages and hotel stays.
Peter Lawson Jones: There is nothing in what I've proposed that couldn't be done in the time that is necessary to demonstrate to medical mart. To the merchandise mart properties incorporated our seriousness about doing this and having a guaranteed revenue stream in place.
The vote for the tax came at the end of the second public hearing on the matter. It drew nearly 300 people to the downtown Cleveland Public Library. And as was the case in the first hearing, most members of the audience who spoke were in favor of the tax hike that would move the project forward.
But there were a handful of community members and several Cleveland City Council members who spoke out against the tax increase, mainly because the public didn't get a chance to vote on it.
After the commissioners' decision, Councilman Brian Cummins told a small crowd that 1,700 people are standing by to wage a petition drive to force the commissioners to put the issue on the ballot.
Opponents of the tax increase will need that kind of volunteer army because they have only 30 days from now to gather at least 45,000 valid signatures.
Cummins also wants to know more about the county's plan.
Brian Cummins: I'm actually quite disappointed that after all this time of discussing this. That with all the great minds, financiers, the greater Cleveland Partnership, everyone that's backing this that we aren't able to show the people of Cuyahoga County more details as to where this is going to go, what this is going to cost.
As of now, commissioners say the annual $42 million garnered from the sales tax hike would pay for building what they now call "a $450 million integrative center" that includes the medical mart and the convention center.
The commissioners have considered building the facilities around Tower City downtown but they haven't actually settled on a location. Nor is it any clearer how much taxpayer money will go into the medical part. It is clear taxpayers will fund the convention center entirely and subsidize the medical mart to some extent.
The Chicago based Merchandise Mart Properties, would manage development of the medical mart. It's president, Chris Kennedy, couldn't shed any more light on the location yesterday nor was he giving answers to questions about exactly how much money businesses will put into the medical mart part of the project. He only said he expects the private sector will contribute the lion's share of the financing. And he says it's a good deal for Cleveland.
Chris Kennedy: We wanna use your medical leadership to create a trade show economy. In short we wanna join you in remaking one of America's great cities.
Kennedy said he understands the project has been divisive but he virtually dismissed the petition drive on the county tax as a waste of time.
Chris Kennedy: The fact is all that energy really out to be poured into to a positive effort to try to do something positive for the city of Cleveland.
Unless the petition drive stops it, the extra quarter percent sales tax will take effect October 1st. Tasha Flournoy, 90.3.