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Deep Cuts Possible for Arts and Human Services

By Gregory Flannery · November 21st, 2006 · Porkopolis
  Mayor Mark Mallory convened a budget forum at Cincinnati State College and four days later proposed restoring many unpopular cuts.
Graham Lienhart

Mayor Mark Mallory convened a budget forum at Cincinnati State College and four days later proposed restoring many unpopular cuts.

Some tough choices lie ahead for Cincinnati officials as they try to balance the city's budget for the next two years, which could include closing 13 swimming pools and two recreation centers, laying off 61 workers and slashing funding for arts and social services. At the same time, however, money is being added for some items, including about $4.4 million to hire 65 more police officers, increasing police overtime and $6 million for projects to spark economic development.

The spending items are included in a proposed 2007-08 municipal budget released last week by City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr., who says the changes are needed to avert a $28 million deficit caused mostly by skyrocketing costs for expenditures such as health insurance and fuel. Under the city's charter, Mayor Mark Mallory has 15 days after receiving the proposal to suggest changes and forward the spending plan to city council, and he unveiled his own counter-proposal Nov. 20. Council's Finance Committee holds hearings Dec. 12 at the Madisonville Recreation Center and Dec. 14 at the College Hill Recreation Center to solicit input from residents. Council will spend the last two weeks of December tinkering with the proposal before approving a final budget.

Dohoney released his budget proposal publicly before giving a copy to city council and allegedly before giving a copy to the mayor.

The strategy is peculiar, because Mallory hired the city manager and the two share a suite of offices. Some City Hall observers believe the maneuver was designed to position Mallory as a hero in the budget process and allow him to publicly reverse some of the more draconian cuts proposed by Dohoney. In another break from past policy, Mallory held his own forum on the budget proposal Dec. 16 at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Nearly 600 people attended, and about 170 residents signed a sheet to speak about the possible changes. The turnout caused a brief traffic jam. Most of the participants opposed cuts in human services funding. Typically, the city sets aside 1.5 percent of its general fund for such programs as shelters for battered women and the homeless and programs for youth and senior citizens. Dohoney wants to reduce the amount from $2.5 million to $1 million. Mallory said little at the forum, but did pledge to restore some proposed cuts.

Dohoney's suggested changes include closing one of the city's nine health clinics, saving about $1.4 million annually; closing 13 swimming pools, saving $380,000; closing recreation centers in Camp Washington and Carthage, saving $160,000; reducing the frequency that garbage crews pick up recyclable materials, saving about $630,000; reducing the Over-the-Rhine cleaning program by $200,000; and eliminating subsidies for some special events, saving $97,000. Further, the city would stop subsidizing the cost of providing school resource officers and crossing guards for the school district, which costs $1.9 million each year.

Subsidies for arts groups would be cut by more than two-thirds, from $633,000 to $200,000, while annual subsidies to community councils to pay for neighborhood projects would be cut from $7,000 per council to $5,580.

Proposed increases include 65 police officers over a two-year period, costing about $4.4 million; an extra $1.5 million to the police department for more overtime; $5 million for economic development programs that focus on job creation and housing; and $1 million to demolish 91 condemned structures in Avondale, East Price Hill and Northside.

The budget proposes hiking water rates by 7 percent in 2007 and 6 percent in 2008; and raising downtown parking meter rates from 75 cents an hour to $1. The proposed budget totals $2.4 billion over the two-year period.

Four days after the forum Mallory revealed his own budget proposal that, as predicted, jettisoned some of the steeper cuts. By lowering the amount that Dohoney proposed that the city pay into the Cincinnati Retirement System for municipal employees from 21.77 percent to 17 percent, the city could save about $3.4 million, Mallory said. That could be used to keep the two rec centers and 13 swimming pools open. Also, Mallory wants to restore the proposed cuts to the arts programs, add $500,000 for a youth employment program and increase the amount given to neighborhood councils to $8,000 per group.

"The best way to strengthen and grow our city is by investing in our people," Mallory said. "A balanced budget is about more than numbers. We have to have balance in how we prioritize life in our city, and what we invest in."

Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell, a longtime arts advocate, wants some funding restored.

"Upon further review, I am concerned about the extra hires for police," he says. "I still feel the number's too high, particularly if that means we have to cut some of our existing services. Certainly, arts is at the top of that list, and parks and recreation are right behind it."

City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, a budget hawk, mostly was pleased with the proposal and praised Dohoney.

"I'm pretty impressed, honestly," she says. "It was very heavy-handed, and it needed to be. There's no doubt about it. Service cuts have to be made and they have to be made based on our core priorities."

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