Cincinnati's government is a classic case study of the dynamics in a dysfunctional family, which is a sad state of affairs for the city's residents, who are left reeling from the illness.
Last week's extended soap opera at City Hall about how to fill a $54.7 million deficit in the budget ended anti-climatically, with differing City Council factions temporarily solving the dilemma by resorting to the same sort of tricks they did last year — and for several years before —under similar circumstances.
Instead of showing leadership or political courage, the mayor and nine elected council members decided to use $27 million in one-time sources of cash to patch over the immediate problem and approve studies into possible changes that could yield the rest of the savings. Cross your fingers and rub your lucky rabbit's foot, y'all.
Once again, officials punted the tough decisions involving layoffs, service reductions and tax increases to another time.
That means recent, controversial proposals like laying off nearly 400 municipal employees, including 109 police officers and 105 firefighters, along with implementing a $20 trash fee and privatizing garbage pickup are off the table. For now.
Make no mistake, they all will come up again, along with other cost-cutting ideas. The real question is whether council will tackle the subjects in an orderly, rational manner throughout the coming year, or again wait until the last minute and make this December as absurd as the last one.
Yes, cities nationwide are having budget troubles due to the recession. Tellingly, however, Cincinnati's fiscal woes predate the downturn and have occurred for the better part of a decade. Something's fundamentally broken here.
Council approved its latest makeshift, do-nothing plan after factions couldn't agree on actual solutions for the budget. The $340 million operating budget for this year was approved in a typical 5-4 vote. Supporting the measure were Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and members Laure Quinlivan, Cecil Thomas, Charlie Winburn and Wendell Young.
Opposed were members Jeff Berding, Chris Bortz, Leslie Ghiz and Chris Monzel.
Don't fall into the lazy trap of “us versus them” thinking, though; both factions are bipartisan and there's plenty of blame to go around in this dispute.
What's done is done, however
With that in mind, here are some general guiding principles for budget talks during the coming year:
1.) Tax revenues are down and the nation has been in a severe economic downturn since late 2007, causing many private-sector companies to shed employees and become leaner. Thus, it's foolish and unrealistic for the Police and Fire departments — which have expanded in recent years — to think they're somehow immune from making cuts, when other city departments have done the same.
Suggested course of action: City staffers and labor union leaders should begin negotiating now about how many people should be laid off or offer alternate cost-savings ideas. In all likelihood, ample helpings of both will be needed to avoid deficits in the future.
2.) The city's troubled pension plan has a $1 billion shortfall, and having employees merely blame City Council for not dealing with the situation sooner is pointless and solves nothing. The system will become insolvent within 20 years unless something is done.
Suggested course of action: The lavish benefits given to municipal retirees were considered generous even during the period when the city was growing. Nowadays, with a mostly stagnant population base and skyrocketing health-care costs, there's simply no way City Hall can continue to pay $5 million each month in health-care costs into the system. The rest of us still live here, and we need a viable city government that functions well; we can't let it go bankrupt to subsidize outsized expectations. Workers and retirees should agree to some benefit reductions and begin lobbying their federal representatives for meaningful health-care reform.
3.) The city needs a new revenue source to lessen the severity of cuts. Unless people want to cut the size of municipal government by about one-sixth — roughly 17 percent — other solutions are needed to take the brunt of the impact.
Suggested course of action: Last spring City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. suggested ending the city's property tax rollback and charging the maximum 6.1 mills, which would generate an extra $8.9 million; increasing the admissions tax for concerts and sports events from 3 percent to 8 percent, which would generate $6 million; and increasing the city's earnings tax�on workers from 2.1 percent to 2.5 percent, which would generate about $45 million. The first two actions would be the least painful and should be seriously considered when moving forward. The latter proposal would require a change in the city's charter; even if council had the cojones to put it before voters, it's unlikely to pass in the current economic climate.
As part of council's cobbled-together, patchwork budget plan, the group agreed to study possible changes to how the Fire Department deploys emergency medical personnel; begin discussions with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office about the feasibility of assuming police patrol duties within the city; and place a charter amendment before voters that, if approved, would merge the parks and recreation departments.
No matter where individuals might stand on those proposals, council members should make a New Year's resolution to have decided on all of them by September, at the latest.
There's plenty of foreknowledge about the fiscal problems looming on the horizon, so spare us the mock surprise and faux sense of urgency that sprouts up every November in Cincinnati.
In truth, council likes to dither and pass the buck for most of the year because its members are afraid of the political fallout their decisions will cause. By passing something on an emergency basis, they can claim whatever action was taken was urgently needed and there wasn't time to weigh other options.
There's nothing preventing City Council from working on budget proposals throughout the year. Although the charter states the city manager must submit a proposed budget to the mayor each fall, who then passes it along to City Council for its review, the reality is council members can work on fiscal issues as much or as little as they want and don't have to wait on the city manager. Get to work. Now.
Every Cincinnati resident should demand more professionalism and foresight from City Council in 2011. If it doesn't occur, this fall's elections could yield some interesting surprises.
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