‘We’re fighting for you’: Hamilton Council backs those hit with flood protection rate hikes

Appeals may be filed through April 24.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The Miami Conservancy District, which provides flood protection to communities along the Stillwater, Mad and Great Miami rivers and Twin Creek with maintenance and improvements, plans to increase its annual assessments for the first time in a dozen years.

That has infuriated members of Hamilton City Council.

They want the MCD to pause for the moment ― including requesting a two-year moratorium from the Court of Common Pleas ― to see what the assessment will do for the city of Hamilton, which Councilman Michael Ryan said “is trying to ruin” the pro-business environment the city’s worked on for the past dozen-plus years.

“We can’t allow this to happen,” he said, and telling the city residents, “We’re fighting for you, and we’re going to continue to fight until this is taken care of because you matter.”

They encourage residents and business owners to appeal the assessment, which can be found online at mcdwater.org/i-want-to/learn-about-my-assessment. They have until April 24 to file.

While the entire council, and many community leaders, support the need for the Miami Conservancy District — Hamilton was one of the founding communities — they are against the new assessments for various reasons, foremost the size of many of the small and large businesses in the city.

The Miami Conservancy District recently announced the new assessments it will levy starting in 2025 on property taxes for those within the agency’s boundaries within five counties and 22 communities along the Great Miami River and its tributaries.

Miami Conservancy District spokesperson Sarah Hippensteel Hall said in response to the council’s harsh criticisms, “We believe messaging has been consistent. We have been meeting with local stakeholders since early 2023. The Miami Conservancy District is committed to the mission of providing unfailing flood protection to protect the safety and well-being of the people and property of the Miami Valley. We have hosted public meetings, made presentations, mailed postcards, mailed letters, built webpages, and created additional meeting opportunities.

“The Miami Conservancy District will review the action taken by the Hamilton City Council, in light of the court order to proceed,” she said.

The proposed assessment increase includes a new 1% capital assessment and a 0.59% increase to the 2.19% maintenance assessment. The assessment covers costs related to the upkeep and rehabilitation of the levee and dam system. The district said it has identified about $140 million in short-term and long-term projects needed to ensure levees, dams and channels across the region remain safe and effective.

MCD officials have said that aging infrastructure, extreme weather events and increasing rainfall are putting pressure on the regional flood protection system, which has critical maintenance, repair, rehabilitation and reinvestment needs.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The readjusted assessment was delayed a few years by a 2021 Butler County property tax appeal by former county auditor Roger Reynolds, which he lost. Hall said the annual cost to maintain the flood protection system is approximately $9 million and that delay caused an annual deficit of $3 million, which was covered by MCD’s cash reserves.

The flood protection maintenance assessment collects $6.4 million, and reserves will not sustain normal operations beyond 2025. The new maintenance rate of 2.78% is set to cover budgetary needs through 2032, generating $11.5 million a year, which will allow the district to build back up its cash reserves. Without increased revenue, Hippensteel Hall said the required minimum fund balance will not be met adding risk in the case of infrastructure failure or large event, as well as noncompliance with financial policies.

Council member Carla Fiehrer said she “would take this much more serious” if they didn’t take 12 years to put an assessment on the books, citing the MCD’s $140 million in infrastructure needs for long- and short-term projects and maintenance.

“If you honestly believe, in 12 years, you’re not going to have this infrastructure (needs) and this is now when you’re wanting to make up for it, there’s something terribly wrong with that, and these people are not to be managing this conservancy.”

There are nearly 5,100 properties protected by the MCD that pay an assessment that was last assessed in 2012 and levied in 2013. Approximately 80% of property owners, MCD officials say, are anticipated to pay less than $250 per year for both the maintenance and capital assessment. But it’s that remaining 20% that will see increases that are five or 10 times the increase, and in the case of Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill, about 50 times more.

Hamilton City Council is asking for a two-year moratorium on implementing what Councilman Joel Lauer called both a “money grab” by the district and essentially a tax rather than an assessment.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

“I am disgusted by the absurd assessment that is being implemented by the Miami Conservancy District,” he said, calling the MCD’s board policy “fundamentally questionable.”

“It is alarming to hear that many of our businesses and citizens within the city will be impacted by this unprecedented, unwarranted and potentially devastating financial burden on our economic growth,” he said.

Ryan said things won’t change unless confronted, and that’s what they did Wednesday night, calling the assessments “unfair and unjust.”

“These assessments will be devastating to our businesses, our residents and our future redevelopment projects. Simply put, no businesses will be coming to Hamilton again if this goes through, and this is completely unacceptable, and I will not stand for it.”

He went on to say MCD “had every opportunity” to be proactive about this process, but it wasn’t, including reaching out the Hamilton City Council before filing them.

“This entire situation could have been handled better, but it wasn’t,” Ryan said. “It is so infuriating to me that it has now reached this point. MCD should be incentivizing business development in our city, not penalizing them.”

Councilman Tim Naab sponsored the council-approved resolution opposing the MCD’s recent assessment, which is known as the Appraisal of Readjustment, which some on City Council said using the 1913 flood as the basis 111 years later is antiquated and should be re-evaluated.

Council member Susan Vaughn said the 1913 flood should not be the basis for the decision to assess fees, nor should the small number of people living or owning businesses within the river’s floodplain foot the bill.

“The Great Miami Riverway is such an amazing area for Ohio, we should be proud of that and we have one of the best right with all the development going on,” she said. “We all, 63,000 of us and all our visitors, enjoy the riverfront and as a resident of Hamilton, if we need an assessment, let’s look at it citywide. It would be unfair to think that a small number of people who were not here in 1913 have to carry the burden.”

And she believes this should be done for the entire riverway.

The MCD did have a meeting in February in Hamilton about the preliminary assessment for 2025, as well as last week in Dayton and Troy, and have planned two more next week in Hamilton. The MCD attended a 17Strong meeting in Hamilton last week.

Hamilton Community Foundation President and CEO John Guidugli attended that meeting and said the HCF only became aware recently of the assessment amount. The foundation owns multiple properties around Hamilton, including land on which the Fitton Center sits. The Fitton Center property is currently assessed at just under $11,600 and would nearly triple to just under $31,700 a year.

“We’re just starting to dig in on how the impact would be felt by us personally and by other organizations we’re supportive of,” said Guidugli.

David Stark, director of operations at Hamilton ArtSpace Lofts on High Street, said people appreciate the flood protections provided by the MCD, but said it appears the district is taking advantage of Hamilton’s success. ArtSpace will see its assessment increase nine times its current rate, from $1,208 to more than $10,800 a year.

“Hamilton has a long and storied history of obstinance in the face of these kinds of challenges. It’s our turn to rise up against it and I’m confident that this Hamilton is going to do what it has to do,” he said. “We need the Miami Conservancy District to listen to reason, to view this practically. We understand their value, we know we need flood protection systems, but this is too much, it’s too sudden.”

Mayor Pat Moeller abstained from the city council conversation and subsequent vote as his law business is within the flood plain. However, after he stepped down from the council dais, he stepped up to the audience’s podium speaking as a resident.

“My concerns are of the planning and the timeline of the readjustment,” he said. ”This is an assessment, but to me, it seems like a tax. I do not like to be assessed or taxed on my property without a reasonable lead time in order to ask questions, go to meetings, develop a plan, present possible alternatives. I as a private citizen like the opportunity, the opportunity to be involved in the process of change.”

Moeller continued, “Obviously MCD has done some incredible work over the years, but there’s a right way in my mind, as an owner of real property within the MCD footprint, there’s a right way to do this.”

Spooky Nook Sports, the transformational sports, events, convention center and hotel complex on North B Street will see their assessment go from just more than $8,800 on their two properties to nearly $477,500. Spooky Nook’s Chief Financial Officer Mike Dollard said they plan to appeal.

He said it seems like there would be a solution somewhere.

“When you do a deal like ours, you have projections and proformas, and you make assumptions for what you think the operations will do and what your fixed charges are, and this clearly was not anticipated,” Dollard said. “If you knew this, you would have made allowances for it.”

Dollard said if the assessment would stand, they would not be increasing rates, saying, “You just can’t do that at this point in our lifecycle. You’ve got to let the business grow a little bit.”

Spooky Nook will enter its second summer of operations this year, and Dollard said, “it would take a lot to make up this difference.”

The Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce will host two opportunities for people to schedule an appointment to talk with MCD General Manager MaryLynn Lodor. She will be available from 1-3:30 p.m. on Tuesday at the chamber office, 201 Dayton St., or 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m. on Thursday.

People can schedule a time online at calendly.com/mcd1913/miami-conservancy-district-hamilton-office-hours.

Chamber President and CEO Dan Bates said “emotion is very high” with the assessment announcement.

“My issue with this is they can do an assessment every six years, and they have not done that. They should have done an assessment six years ago, and now they’re doing a 12-year assessment, which is part of the reason the percentages are so high. And as an outsider looking in, they have not managed their internal operation the way they could have.”

He would like to see the MCD cover their base needs at a smaller percentage and then come back and reevaluate how to build the reserves.

“To me, that’s strategy because legally, they can go ahead and do this,” Bates said, adding that this may need to be spread out to all property owners which would be a much smaller increase for everyone because if a major flood event happened again, it’s impacting the entire community.

Fiehrer and Vaughn this should be an assessment for the entire communities within the MCD jurisdiction, not those properties impacted by the 1913 flood.

“When we have another flood, it’s going to affect everyone,” said Fiehrer. “It’s not just going to hit the areas from 1913, and to Susan’s point, that’s why this assessment needs to be across the board.”

Vaughn added, “If the bridges wash away, we are all impacted, and that’s the entirety of the county and Southwest Ohio.”

Vice Mayor Eric Pohlman, a former small business owner, said they need to have a meeting with the MCD as soon as possible and the city “can’t let our businesses down.”

“This is something we have to win, we have to stop. And it’s got to start now,” he said.

More details

The Miami Conservancy District was created in 1915 as a river management agency following the 1913 flood. It’s designed to protect Southwest Ohio communities along the Great Miami River and its tributaries from flooding. More than a century ago, the Great Miami River flood in March of 1913 devastated communities like Hamilton and Dayton. The MCD built levees, straightened the river channel throughout the area and built five dry dams on various tributaries to control flooding, and was funded through the assessments.

MCD is funded by a property assessment, which can be re-evaluated every six years, though it’s been a dozen years since the last assessment, which coincided with the start of Hamilton’s revitalization efforts as new businesses and developments started, and continues to come into the city’s urban core, which is within that Great Miami River floodplain.

MCD jurisdiction-wide, there are more than 47,000 properties within the five counties and 22 municipalities in the district’s boundary along the Great Miami River and its tributaries. MCD spokesperson Sarah Hippensteel Hall said the core principles of the benefit formula that determines the assessment is rooted in the impact of the 1913 flood. It takes into account property values, flood percentages and other modifiers.

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