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Council Avoids Tough Decisions, While Some Grandstand

By Kevin Osborne · November 17th, 2010 · Porkopolis

If you own a home in Cincinnati, and maybe even if you rent, you’re probably going to be paying more next year because city officials lack the political will to stand up to the local police union. Or the firefighters union. Or municipal retirees.

It’s budget time at City Hall, and Cincinnati City Council is grappling with various proposals to avoid a $60 million deficit next year. Council needs to settle on some solutions before the new year because cities are legally prohibited from operating in a deficit, unlike the federal government.

Because council has passed the buck on festering fiscal problems for several years — including skyrocketing overtime costs for the police and fire departments and a $1 billion shortfall in its pension system — members are now scrambling to cut costs elsewhere. With the recession reducing tax revenues, the problem is made even worse.

The cuts potentially could result in the layoffs of hundreds of city workers and reductions in services to residents.

One of the proposals most likely to pass is a new garbage collection fee, which would be added to water bills. Under the current proposal, the residential trash collection fee would be $17.30 each month ($207.60 annually), while the fee for most small businesses would be $19.90 each month ($238.80 annually).

No doubt landlords will pass on the expense to tenants.

The local proposal is significantly higher than the collection fee charged in Cleveland, which approved a phased-in fee last December, also to help fill a budget shortfall. This year, residents are charged $8 each month ($96 annually); it will increase by 25 cents each year before maxing out at $8.75 in 2013. People age 65 and older who make less than $29,500 annually get a 50 percent discount.

Columbus doesn’t charge its residents for trash collection.

It could be argued that Cleveland and Columbus don’t need to charge as much as Cincinnati because both cities have more residents, meaning their tax bases are larger. But it could just as easily be argued that Cincinnati is reaping the consequences of poor decisions — or the lack of decisions, really — for the past 10-15 years.

Instead of making permanent spending cuts or raising fees, recent City Councils have approved structurally unsound budgets that papered over the problem by using different one-time fixes, like shifting money from one account to another.

Council has known for years that overtime costs were out of control in the Police Department, for instance, and that other spending there had scant oversight.

For example, an Enquirer analysis in 2009 found that the Police Department was spending almost as much on overtime as the rest of municipal government combined. It spent more than $7 million, mostly for court appearances and to have officers staff sporting events, concerts and festivals. During that year, 238 officers and staffers earned more than $10,000 in overtime, while 28 others earned more than $20,000 and two others earned more than $30,000.

Similarly, a CityBeat article in 2003 revealed how more than 75 percent of officers who worked off-duty details for a public housing agency violated a rule that resulted in them being paid for being on-duty at the same time.

And we’ve regularly pointed out over the years about the Police Department’s profligate spending.

In 2007 city officials couldn’t itemize how much of a $3.3 million allocation that Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. spent to renovate his office and private bathroom, telling CityBeat that records weren’t kept in an itemized format. But department insiders did tell us that Streicher was unhappy with the original work done on his bathroom and demanded it be redone, adding significantly to the cost. Maybe once the chief retires he can host his own show on HGTV.

Instead of clamping down on the department’s excesses, however, City Council took a hands-off approach. Members were afraid because Streicher goes on WLW (700 AM) any time they try to rein him in and spouts misleading rhetoric on Willie Cunningham’s talk show, riling up the masses. If that doesn’t work, the leader of the police union usually goes on TV to bitch about supposed “council meddling” and warn of possible spikes in crime.

The reality is that the Police Department continued to get pay raises for years while most of the rest of the city workforce was under a salary freeze, and the department largely has been exempt from budget cuts.

It’s not all Streicher’s fault. In 2001 City Council voted to hire 115 new officers during an election year, even though the chief said at the time he hadn’t requested the extra cops and didn’t think they were needed. At the time, budget planners said the added cost would be $7 million annually by 2010.

If council was serious about curbing costs, it would allow the city’s Internal Audit Section to scrutinize the department’s books and eliminate the department’s in-house budget planners and human resource staff and make it use the city’s, just like other departments do.

Under the city manager’s current budget proposal, the Police Department is supposed to cut $16 million from its $91.4 million budget during the next two years. Streicher has offered up only $10 million in cuts, which he says can be accomplished only by laying off 144 officers and demoting 160 others.

Although the police union has raised holy hell about the plan, that move means the 1,100-officer department would still almost meet the 1,000 officer threshold that Streicher once said was sufficient.

Typically, police union President Kathy Harrell has resorted to distorting the issue in the public relations tug-of-war about the cuts. “I guess the streetcar’s more important,” she told reporters, referring to the city’s planned $128 million streetcar system.

Much of the project’s construction funding comes from federal grants, but Harrell dislikes council’s plan to allocate 25 percent of revenues generated by the planned Cincinnati casino once it opens — or about $5 million annually — to operate the system.

Budget planners, however, noted that paying for police personnel costs with anticipated casino revenues is unwise because they could fluctuate wildly from year to year and cause its own set of problems.

Rather than discussing the issue rationally, two of council’s Republicans — Leslie Ghiz and Charlie Winburn — tried to score some cheap political points by publicizing that cops were paid overtime to guard a streetcar recently kept on display at Fountain Square for a few days. As it turns out, the grand total was $303. Not exactly an amount that matters much, in the larger scheme of things.

The Cincinnati Fire Department has had similar problems with overtime that it hasn’t addressed.

It spent about $2.5 million in overtime in 2009, with 29 firefighters making more than $10,000 each in OT costs. Because the department has routinely exceeded its budget for overtime in recent years, it’s had to resort to brownouts — taking certain pieces of equipment offline at some fire stations — to keep in the black.

Firefighters union President Marc Monahan blamed brownouts for delaying the rescue of two people from a burning house Nov. 5 in Northside. Although Monahan claimed brownouts affected response times, the city manager noted the first truck arrived three minutes after it was dispatched, within the standard. The first truck to respond had an aerial ladder, but it couldn’t be used due to the house’s design.

Monahan has resisted changing the department’s practice of sending a fire truck to every medical call to accompany an ambulance. The department responds to about 70,000 calls annually, and nearly 60,000 of them are not fire-related.

Monahan alleges the dual-response doesn’t add to expense, but there are four firefighters to each truck, twice as many that staff an ambulance. Critics counter that the union’s resistance is more about protecting staffing levels rather than protecting public safety.

When Cincinnati officials talk about the budget, they’re usually referring to the General Fund, where most of the city’s discretionary spending occurs. This year’s General Fund revenues are expected to total about $354.6 million, while expenditures were on track to be $361.9 million. That meant some last-minute cutting already was done just to make it through the current year.

Two-thirds of the General Fund goes toward the Police and Fire departments.

For the two-year budget covering 2011-12, General Fund revenues are expected at $667.6 million, while expenses are on track to total $777.4 million. Oops, obviously that can’t be allowed to happen.

The problems don’t stop there. Council knows it either needs to reduce benefits to city retirees or cut services to residents to pay for a one-time cash infusion for its under-funded pension account. But officials have postponed action for years, and Councilman Chris Bortz prefers council not do anything for at least two more years.

It should be noted that most current incumbents wouldn’t be able to seek reelection then, due to term limits. Now that’s political leadership.

Public hearings on the budget are scheduled for Dec. 1 at downtown’s Duke Energy Convention Center, Dec. 7 at the Madisonville Recreation Center, Dec. 9 at the College Hill Recreation Center, Dec. 13 at Midway School in Westwood and Dec. 15 at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center.

Concerned readers might want to attend one of the sessions.

PORKOPOLIS TIP LINES: 513-665-4700 (ext. 147) or pork@citybeat.com



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