Anyone familiar with the political career of Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding probably isn't too surprised that some local groups are accusing him of being “two-faced” and reneging on a promise he allegedly made behind closed doors.
The groups say Berding told Cincinnati's police union that he would only support the city's proposed streetcar system if it was fully funded by federal grants and didn't require any of the city's money. Reportedly, Berding made the commitment in a private interview during the 2009 council elections, to win the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
To be sure, Berding needed help that election cycle and might have been desperate enough to make the promise. That was the year when, after being elected twice before, the local Democratic Party decided to revoke its endorsement of Berding as he sought a third term.
Now CityBeat has learned that Berding has been holding secret talks with area hospitals, attempting to persuade and pressure them into assuming control and operation of the city's eight health clinics that mostly treat low-income and uninsured people. Hoping to avoid any public input or scrutiny, Berding wanted to cobble together a deal before City Council votes Dec. 21 on a budget plan.
Multiple sources have confirmed that Berding has held behind-the-scenes meetings trying to get the Greater Cincinnati Health Council to take on the patients currently served by the city's clinics. The city operates eight health clinics; they include five primary care centers, one STD clinic and two dental-only clinics.
Cincinnati opened its first clinic in 1920 on 12th Street, in an effort to help with disease control. At the time, the city was struggling with outbreaks of diphtheria, venereal diseases, influenza and scarlet fever, records show. Large numbers of residents were spreading the diseases, and they had no access to health services. The widespread outbreaks led to disruptions in various facets of society, particularly in education and the economy.
Other cities that operate their own clinics include Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore.
Today the clinics serve about 35,000 patients annually. Roughly 60 percent of them — or about 21,000 — have no insurance and aren't eligible for Medicaid or Medicare.
Dr. Wael Safi, chair of the Cincinnati Board of Health, says jettisoning the clinics would put some people in harm's way, while also increasing costs for taxpayers in the long-term.
“When the city allots the General Fund money (for the clinics), it goes to preventative care for these people,” Safi says. Without it, patients with chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension will wait until their problems get worse and then seek treatment in hospital emergency rooms, where costs typically are 10-15 percent higher.
“It's a bit of a short-sighted move,” he adds. “The concept of it seems OK on paper but the ramifications of it, in reality, will be devastating.”
Further, if the federal health-care reform laws survive intact before the Supreme Court, all people will be required to have insurance coverage beginning in 2014, Safi says.
Many of them will get it via low-cost pools overseen by the government; such a move would make the clinics essentially cost-neutral for the city.
The Cincinnati Health Department is proposed for a 15 percent cut this year. If approved, that means it budget will have been reduced by 35 percent since 2007. The department's annual budget is about $40 million, and it employs 500 people.
Safi is disturbed by Berding's backdoor, surprise approach.
“The last time council proposed closing some clinics, it was not a politically attractive thing to do and caused much response,” he says. “The politicians we elect should disclose their approach and solicit feedback from the people they represent.”
It's not the first time that Berding has tried to abolish the city's health clinics.
In previous budget debates, Berding has joined with Charterite Chris Bortz and Republicans Leslie Ghiz and Chris Monzel in trying to close some or all of the clinics. That faction still exists on council for another month and would need a fifth vote to approve the plan.
Berding didn't respond to CityBeat's e-mails seeking comment.
Now, let's return to the groups that are calling Berding two-faced.
In September 2009, Democratic precinct executives rescinded the endorsement due to Berding's history of publicly criticizing fellow Democrats, as well as cutting deals with City Council's Republicans and Charterites that were opposed by its Democratic majority. Those deals usually involved plans to close the city's health clinics and swimming pools, among other items.
That summer, City Council was grappling with how to avoid a $28 million deficit. Mayor Mark Mallory and most of council's Democrats had told the Police Department to expect 138 layoffs unless the police union agreed to $2.6 million in other cuts. Berding, however, was opposed and tried unsuccessfully to get council to agree to a “no layoffs pledge.” Council held firm and the union ultimately agreed to some concessions.
Nevertheless, Berding won the admiration of the police and fire unions, which helped him win reelection that November.
But now a strange mixture of groups — led by the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), the police and fire unions, the NAACP's local chapter and Westwood Concern — allege Berding has flip-flopped on a promise he made back then.
The groups distributed a flier last week that stated Berding agreed to oppose the streetcar project if it entailed the use of local funds. It urged people opposed to some looming budget cuts — including possible police and firefighter layoffs — to call and e-mail Berding, and lobby him to drop his support.
In some ways, the connection between the streetcar and the layoffs are a red herring.
Because of a $62 million deficit at City Hall, council is scrambling to make cuts for the 2011-12 period. Among the proposals, the city manager has recommended that council lay off 144 firefighters and 131 police officers. That's angered the police and fire unions, which say money is being wasted on unneeded items like streetcars.
But officials note that the streetcar money comes from the city's capital projects budget, which is legally restricted, and not its general fund for operations. Also, the cash is allocated for later years so, even if the project was canceled today, the city still would have to make $62 million in cuts now to avoid a shortfall.
The unions and other groups say they're opposed because, once the streetcar is operational in late 2012 or early 2013, it will cost about $3 million annually to operate the system.
In reality, what opponents probably are trying to accomplish is two-fold.
For the unions, they know the mayor and council adamantly want the streetcar project built, so elected officials might lessen pressure on making cuts in the police and fire departments in return for the unions stop making the project a public scapegoat.
For COAST and the NAACP, which don't want the project built, the situation is a prime opportunity to gain publicity and tie the streetcar (unfairly) with safety concerns in the public's mind.
After the flier was distributed, Berding — who works for the Cincinnati Bengals as sales director — used the team's attorneys, the high-powered Taft Stettnius & Hollister firm, to send a letter demanding a retraction from the groups or threatening he might sue.
The groups balked, with COAST stating, “If Mr. Berding can't stand the heat, he should get out of the kitchen.” So far, no lawsuit has been filed.
On its Web site, COAST provided details about Berding's alleged promise.
“FOP President Kathy Harrell asked (Berding) during a recent closed-door meeting specifically why he became the fifth vote for the streetcar after promising in his endorsement interview not to unless the project was completely funded by federal grants,” the blog item stated. “He answered that Mayor Mallory strong-armed him into committing local dollars to the streetcar in exchange for bringing Berding's Port Authority give-away to a vote.”
During the past year, Berding has provided the fifth vote on council to proceed with the streetcar project, including having the city issue $64 million in bonds to help finance construction. Those bonds — kind of like a government's credit card — are expected to be repaid using the extra tax revenue sparked by new development along the streetcar route. But the money will have to come out of the city's General Fund if the anticipated spinoff development doesn't occur.
The city's feasibility study estimates the project will result in a $379 million increase in property values along the route over 30 years, providing about $34 million in additional property taxes for the city during the same period.
CityBeat's never been a fan of Berding or COAST, often decrying their goals over the years. Still, we can't help but believe this battle will generate more heat than light and doesn't serve the public's interests well.
Just like watching a TV documentary in which one animal in the jungle stalks and devours another, though, this dispute is ugly and fascinating. We can't turn our eyes away.