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Spin Tax: With an Organized Opposition Raising Questions, the Sin Tax Debate Heats Up 

Despite the best efforts of the City Club to frame its Tuesday forum on the sin tax as "a conversation," temperatures and voices rose as the pro- and anti- Issue 7 factions traded jabs in a spirited debate. The forum capped a week of activity in the contentious Issue 7 campaigning. Both sides are now fully assembling their troops and talking points in advance of the May vote.

The Coalition Against the Sin Tax (C.A.S.T) co-chairman Peter Pattakos and Neil deMause, author of Field of Schemes, spoke in opposition to Issue 7 on Tuesday. [Ed. Note: Pattakos is an occasional Scene contributing author.] They felt that that the 20-year extension of the current tax on cigarettes and alcohol, which would generate more than $260 million for the maintenance of Progressive Field, Quicken Loans Arena, and First Energy Stadium, unfairly lines the pockets of billionaire owners and continues to cripple a city already strapped for cash. Pattakos stressed that alternatives haven't been meaningfully considered and said he can't gauge the level of the sports franchises' contributions when there's a total lack of transparency from the ownership groups. deMause argued that a sin tax disproportionately affects the poor and uneducated.

City Council President Kevin Kelley and Cavaliers' CEO Len Komoroski helmed the pro-sin side, arguing that the city is contractually obligated to fund repairs at the stadiums and that the sin tax is a relatively painless way to produce the funds. They offered possible holes in the ideas of an admission tax or a multi-county sin tax in lieu of a sin tax.

Despite C.A.S.T.'s grassroots approach and passionate assurances — "We continue to find that when people take a few moments to consider the facts behind the proposed Sin Tax, they are overwhelmingly opposed to it," said campaign manager Erin McCardle — the county's leadership either does not agree or does not care to listen.   

Last Thursday, the County Mayors and City Managers Association voted to officially endorse Issue 7, and the vote was what we call in the polling industry a "landslide." Of the 40-50 mayors and city managers that attended, only one voter abstained and one voted no. (The meeting was not open to the public).

Trevor Elkins, Mayor of Newburgh Heights, was the lone dissenter.

"I knew I'd be in the minority," he told Scene in a phone interview. "I didn't think I'd be that in the minority."

Elkins said he couldn't speculate why the vote was so one-sided, beyond a "general sense of obligation," from the mayors. There certainly wasn't much discussion or debate prior to the vote, he said, beyond the ra-ra "regional treasure" stuff. As for his opposition, Elkins said he shares many of the beliefs of the C.A.S.T folks, who weren't allowed to present their position at the meeting. He too thinks that alternatives to the sin tax haven't been fully explored.  

"For me, it relates to fairness and the deal that this community is getting from these franchises," Elkins said. "Compared to other cities, this community's getting a raw deal."

Elkins said he's a strong proponent of an admissions tax, which would (for instance) tax all the out-of-staters who travel to town for Browns games. Elkins also stated for the record that he's a huge Indians fan.

Crain's Cleveland Business published an editorial this week officially endorsing the sin tax as well. They insisted their stance had nothing to do with their connections to the business community; nor was the endorsement a snap decision. "It came after thorough consideration of the legal, practical and economic ramifications."

Crain's thinks an admissions tax is "not a smart" option because it would "dampen demand, which would defeat the purpose of using the buildings as magnets to attract people downtown."

Elkins said that that line of thinking is ridiculous.

"The tickets are cheap now and nobody goes. It's because they don't win," Elkins said. "Unless you're the Browns: Then you never have to win and people still go."

Lisa Barnow, Executive Director of the Mayors and City Managers Association, wrote in an email that the mayors' endorsement vote last week was not rushed.

"The mayors discussed this issue at the February meeting at length," Barnow wrote. "They decided to wait until March to vote so they could further study the issue." Barnow also noted that though she wasn't able to fit the C.A.S.T presentation into an already full meeting agenda, she did distribute their materials to the mayors prior to the vote.

Greg "Don't Call Me Colonel" Kurtz, Mayor of Independence and President of the Association — headquartered in Brecksville — didn't have much to say, but his secretary did forward Scene the quote they'd prepared for the Northeast Ohio Media Group:

"Cuyahoga County mayors and managers understand that voting yes on Issue 7 protects our assets without raising taxes," Kurtz said. "Our three major sports teams generate jobs for our residents and contracts for our businesses."

Which, rest assured, they'd continue to do even without the sin tax. The sin tax doesn't even expire for another year. One of the central tenets of the "Vote No" crowd's opposition is that Clevelanders ought to have a year to absorb debate on the subject. Why would we renew a tax we don't fully understand. opponents ask, a year early?

Nancy Lesic, CEO of Lesic & Camper PR (the firm handling the Issue 7 account for the puppeteers at the Greater Cleveland Partnership) said the 2014 vote was necessary because of the money saved by placing the issue on the ballot in an even-numbered year.

"Several hundreds of thousands of dollars to over a million depending what else is on the ballot," Lesic wrote in an email on the subject of savings. "Also, it's not clear what other important civic ballot issues may be pursued in the coming months. And it's common practice for issue campaigns to renew before their last ballot opportunity – to avert a possible crisis."

Sean Webster, fiscal services manager for the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, said that Lesic is correct that the county saves money if it's on the ballot this year, but the figure is more like $70,000, which he called "small" in the grand scheme of the election budget.

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