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Cover Story: Remaking County Government

Portune and Pepper have big plans for change

By Kevin Osborne · December 13th, 2006 · Cover Story
Portune and Pepper look to remake county government.
Oliver Meinerding

Portune and Pepper look to remake county government.

have big plans

for change Faced with a shrinking population and tax base, an ever-tightening budget and an aging housing stock, most people probably would be glad not to have responsibility for trying to reverse the trends and making Hamilton County a better place to live and work.

Todd Portune and David Pepper, however, are relishing the opportunity.

When Pepper is sworn into office Jan. 2 as a Hamilton County commissioner, it will mark the first time since 1962 that Democrats control the three-member board. The switchover, due to Republican incumbent Phil Heimlich's defeat in the November election, means that Democrat Portune -- who once was virtually shut out of important decision-making by his GOP colleagues and often had his access to the county administration blocked -- will now serve as the commission's president. In that role, he'll set the commission's agenda, guiding discussions on major policy issues and establishing priorities.

"Things were done behind closed doors too often and, when they were, people were often given impossible choices or threats unless certain outcomes occurred," Portune says about the previous commission. "I have heard repeatedly about the 'meanness of spirit.' Too much was done based upon half-truths, innuendo and ideology.

"Ideology is OK. We all have one. But when competing facts are ignored or conveniently discarded or, worse yet, distorted in order to promote ideology, that is when you have problems."

To be sure, southwestern Ohio is a Republican stronghold and Hamilton County for years was the reddest area in that red region. The GOP's complacency, however, led to a dysfunctional county government system more interested in helping the party's benefactors and keeping power than dealing with festering problems in a comprehensive manner, Portune says.

"The previous majority demonstrated a disdain toward developing a strategic vision or plan on any of these areas," he says. "Instead, the county lurched forward from issue to issue in a sort of crisis management mode, only addressing the critical issue of the day as it exploded around us."

Anyone interested in local issues can cite the litany of problems facing the county, which include:

· Looming shortfalls in the fund that was supposed to pay the debt for building the $458 million Bengals stadium;

· Sluggish progress in redeveloping the central riverfront, which -- despite promises of offices, shops and housing -- remains a sea of parking lots;

· Jail overcrowding that has led to 76,000 prisoners being either released early or processed only and let go since the early 1990s; and

· Demands from state officials that Hamilton County repay $224 million in federal money misspent by the county's Job and Family Services Department, mostly by co-mingling accounts and double-counting local money to get matching federal grants.

"If you look closely at the last 10 years, voters in this area are tired of feeling like we're not doing as well as we should be," Pepper says. "Those feelings are overriding party affiliations. On the local level, that makes sense. People want to see results."

Aiming for 3-0
Indeed, although some political observers -- primarily Democrats -- like to credit the shrewdness of their party leaders or the county's changing demographics for the ascension of Democrats to control of the commission, Republicans generally have themselves to blame.

Portune first won election to the commission in 2000 largely due to voters protesting the lopsided stadium lease that his Republican predecessor, Bob Bedinghaus, drafted, giving numerous perks to the Bengals at the expense of taxpayers. Bedinghaus, who had no previous experience in professional sports management, now works for the Bengals as a staff consultant.

Similarly, many political pundits see Pepper's victory as a repudiation of the heavy-handed and secretive way that Heimlich conducted county business. Heimlich's critics, who include both Republicans and Democrats, complained about his go-it-alone style of decision-making that they say unnecessarily alienated many people, as well as his habit of appointing friends and campaign contributors to county boards like the Tax Levy Review Committee.

When Portune won election six years ago, he was the first Democrat to serve on the county commission since 1964. Despite his perennial status as an outsider, he says the problem worsened under the more dogmatic Heimlich.

"It was never as bad five years ago as it has been the past two years," Portune says. "(Previous commissioners) John Dowlin and Tom Neyer did not engage in the type of hardball, winner-take-all style of politics that's been the hallmark recently. Their personalities weren't that way. They were not as partisan. It was very important for (former commission president) Tom Neyer to have a unanimous decision on things, and he was willing to work with me to get it."

By comparison, Portune notes how the county's process for devising a 2005 budget was handled by Heimlich and his fellow Republican, Commissioner Pat DeWine. Portune had 23 proposed modifications to the spending plan.

Heimlich and DeWine were complimentary about some of the proposals, but not a single one was added, which Portune says was politically motivated.

"Phil and Pat basically did what they wanted without regard to my input," he says. "It wouldn't have happened if Pat hadn't gone along with it."

Regardless, Portune doesn't harbor ill feelings toward DeWine and vows to include him in deliberations.

"I hope Pat would be willing to be a team player," Portune says. "Certainly, David and I will afford him every opportunity to do so. I'm not naive enough to believe we'll get 3-0 votes all the time, but we will strive for that."

Pepper adds, "We need to able to work across party lines. That will be a major difference with this commission."

DeWine believes Portune has overstated the current commission's working relationship.

"I don't agree with all of Todd's criticisms on that," DeWine says. "Sometimes he was simply outvoted."

Still, DeWine is realistic about his new role as minority member.

"It's certainly going to be difficult," he says. "I think I can work well with both commissioners and continue to get things accomplished."

Noting that he has worked with Pepper before, on Cincinnati City Council, DeWine adds, "I was on city council for five years and, even in the minority, I was able to forge coalitions and get things done."

Roberts is out
Portune and Pepper want to make the county commission more inclusive not only across party lines but also for residents. The pair plans to overhaul the selection process for appointing people to county boards and committees, giving advance notice and allowing public discussion and debate about candidates.

"We need to make sure, rather than it being a shadow arm of county government operating below the radar, that they operate publicly," Portune says.

Pepper agrees.

"We need to greatly open up county government," he says. "If you don't have transparent government, people quickly lose trust in all that it does, as well they should."

Many boards and committees were altered in recent years to make reducing spending their only mission, according to Portune. For example, the Health Care Review Commission focused on selling assets like the Drake Center rehabilitative hospital. It will change to examine methods for economizing and collaborating with other agencies to address community needs and expand health care services for uninsured people.

Shortly after the new commission takes office, Portune and Pepper will announce a slate of initiatives they intend to accomplish within the board's first 100 days. Also, the pair will appoint citizen advisory panels to review some long-term problems and recommend solutions for later in the year, which will be used to guide the commission's second year agenda.

"Todd and I will come out of the gate with a number of proposals," Pepper says.

At least one personnel decision already has been made.

Ron Roberts, the controversial former director of the Cincinnati Business Committee who was hired last fall as deputy county administrator, will leave his job in early January. Roberts was a close political ally of Heimlich, who created a county position for him.

Portune frequently complained that Roberts answered only to Heimlich and left other commissioners in the dark about important matters.

Shortly after Heimlich's election defeat, Roberts quietly submitted his resignation, effective when the new commission takes office.

"Mr. Roberts' service will not be retained in the new year," Portune says.

Asked if he would have pushed for Roberts' firing, Portune demurred.

"That's a question I haven't been confronted with and don't need to answer," he says. "He has decided it was time to move on. I wish him well."

The fate of County Administrator Patrick Thompson -- another person whose hiring was pushed by Heimlich and DeWine -- hasn't been decided. Thompson is halfway through a two-year contract, and Portune considers the next year to be a probation of sorts.

"Whether he's retained or not will depend on his performance in the coming year," Portune says. "I will say that I am critical of Pat (Thompson) for playing politics over the past year and not keeping me in the loop with people working under him, like Mr. Roberts."

'World's worst plan'
County commissioners oversee a total annual budget of more than $2 billion, which pays for such services as the sheriff's office, the county prosecutor, the jail and area welfare programs, all of which affect about 5,000 workers. The commission directly controls a $254 million general fund budget -- mostly generated by property taxes -- that affect about 450 workers.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing county commissioners is what to do about jail overcrowding. With little input from his colleagues, Heimlich last spring put forward a proposal that asked voters to raise the sales tax by a quarter-cent for 20 years to build a $225 million jail and pay for a property tax rollback throughout that period. After both DeWine and Portune harshly criticized the plan for its extensive debt financing, it was altered to propose a quarter-cent sales tax hike for just 10 years, with a rollback in effect for the first three years.

The jail tax became the centerpiece of Heimlich's re-election campaign but voters, realizing Heimlich had done little on the issue during his first three years in office, were skeptical. Among the complaints about the proposal was that the ballot item was actually a supplement to the general fund with no specific wording earmarking the money for construction costs. Further, no location was selected for the new jail and operating costs weren't included.

Also, critics disliked the tax's regressive nature, which would hit poor people the hardest while giving tax breaks to wealthy homeowners and owners of large commercial properties. Moreover, the plan didn't set aside money for substance abuse treatment and rehabilitative programs recommended by the county's panel of experts that reviewed the jail issue. At an August political forum, Heimlich said, "When it comes to crime, I'm not a root-cause kind of guy."

Voters weren't convinced. Despite the high profile support of Sheriff Simon Leis Jr., Prosecutor Joe Deters and millionaire financier Carl Lindner -- all Republicans -- the ballot issue was resoundingly defeated by a 57-43 percent margin.

During the new county commission's first 100 days, Portune wants to conduct an analysis into the specifics about why the tax proposal failed; commissioners will develop an alternate plan for building a new jail shortly thereafter. Before any proposal is put on the ballot, voters will learn where the county plans on constructing the facility, he says.

"We all assume it went down (to defeat) because of too many unanswered questions," Portune says. "It just was not handled in a professional manner. It was too rushed and too tied to the campaign of one person."

State law allows counties to impose up to a quarter-cent sales tax increase without placing the item on the ballot, and some Republicans want the next commission to do just that. Leis sent a letter to commissioners Dec. 6 stating that immediate action is needed.

"Personally, I believe you would garner a great deal of respect if you have the backbone to make this tough decision," Leis wrote.

Portune, Pepper and DeWine all balked at the suggestion, adding that any new tax hike should go before voters. Portune especially was angered that Leis released the letter to the media before giving it to commissioners and while Leis was working behind the scenes with Portune to craft a new jail proposal.

Simply enacting a tax increase after the previous commission put the issue on the ballot would be wrong, Pepper says.

"Just as a matter of principle, you have to ask for the voters' approval," he says. "We all need to live with that decision."

Earlier this year, DeWine described increasing the sales tax to pay for a jail as taking "the easy way out." Instead, he prefers keeping the current Queensgate jail open and renovating it and reducing county spending to pay for construction of a smaller facility than originally proposed.

As far as DeWine is concerned, a tax hike is off the table. Hamilton County has the second-highest sales-tax rate in Ohio, after Franklin County, and that helps push residents and businesses to move elsewhere.

"The voters have spoken. It would be a slap in their face," DeWine says.

Pepper doesn't rule out placing another tax hike on the ballot but believes all other options should be considered first.

"My view is I'm going to leave no stone unturned," he says. "It seemed like the first and only thing Phil Heimlich did was to raise taxes. He didn't do any homework."

In the Nov. 7 election, voters approved county property tax levies for indigent health care and children's services, Pepper adds. While polls found that crime was the top priority among voters, they still rejected the jail tax. The decision is telling, he says.

"A lot of it was about trust," Pepper says. "The previous jail tax proposal was done with absolute zero credibility."

But Pepper noted that DeWine ultimately voted to place the last tax increase on the ballot and bears some responsibility for the county's dilemma.

"I think the voters spoke on the world's worst plan, and Pat was a part of that," Pepper says. "It was a colossal failure."

'Many tools'
When asked if county taxes would increase under a Democratic-controlled commission, which was an election season campaign allegation by Republicans, Portune responds, "Absolutely not, with the one exception perhaps being the jail, but that's not certain. If we do decide to place a sales tax measure on the ballot, I won't lie to voters and say their taxes aren't going up because of some gimmicky property tax scheme."

One proposal from the Heimlich/DeWine-era commission that might live on is the concept of using managed competition. Under the concept, private firms are allowed to compete with county departments for the right to perform some services.

To win the competition, private firms must demonstrate they can increase productivity while reducing costs. Hamilton County already is trying the method to save money for vehicle fleet maintenance.

DeWine wants to expand managed competition's use, an idea that Pepper might support as long as county workers are given the right to compete in a fair manner. Similar to what was done at City Hall while Pepper was there, he wants the process designed to allow city workers to be more innovative and provide incentives to get ideas from rank-and-file employees.

"It may make sense in some areas," he says. "There are many tools to increase efficiency."

Another area where Pepper has common ground with DeWine is on DeWine's proposal with Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Bortz to consider merging some city and county services or jointly purchasing items to reduce costs. One possibility is merging all 9-1-1 emergency communication centers in the county.

Even faced with tough and possibly unpopular decisions in the weeks and months ahead, Portune is confident that the new commission's style of business will help generate more consensus and respect than in the past, even among political enemies.

"Remaking county government to better serve the people's business," he says, "will go a long way toward engendering trust and confidence and ultimately support for the things that need to be done." ©



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