Hamilton increases questioned

After two years of cutting property taxes by a combined $930,000, Hamilton Mayor Jerry Steele says it’s time for an increase. If Steele gets his way and the city’s preliminary fiscal year 2015 budget is passed, Hamilton property taxes will increase some 42 percent, adding nearly $2 million of revenue to city coffers. It’s money Steele says is badly needed to maintain and upgrade the city’s infrastructure and to help fund a new justice center, which would house the city’s police department, attorney’s office and court.

Needless to say, not everyone is enthused by Steele’s proposal. Mark Neumann, president of the Downtown Hamilton Business Improvement Area, says the city’s core is hurting, with downtown vacancy rates rising and property values declining. He worries the tax hike will only make matters worse and “drive more people away.”

While Neumann acknowledges the need for repairs to the city’s infrastructure, he says the justice center should not be a priority during a time of economic hardship in Hamilton. City Councilman Joe Petrusaitis agrees, arguing recent work done to improve police and city attorney’s facilities precludes the need for the center.

“We’ve thrown away this money on remodeling, and now all of a sudden we need a new building, when we really don’t,” Petrusaitis says.

“Well, you tell that to the police department and the courts,” Steele responds. “We’ve got the chief of police in a remodeled broom closet. We’ve got security issues in the court and in the police department. Handicapped accessibility—we could go on and on.”

Steele argues the best way to fund the justice center is to save and pay for the cost all at once, in cash. Though the total price tag of the project is unknown, the FY15 budget calls for a transfer of $230,000 of existing funds to purchase the land where the center would be built, and requests $245,000 in new revenue for future construction costs.

Neumann says the city would be better served by raising funds for projects more gradually, through bonds, and by projects that will improve the city’s business climate and residents’ quality of life.

“To me, if you have a higher standard of living and a higher education base, you’re going to have less need for a bigger justice center,” Neumann says.

A public hearing on the budget will take place Aug. 19.

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