People who closely follow the budget troubles plaguing City Hall for the past couple of years know that Cincinnati City Council had to make numerous cuts to services last winter to avoid a $54.7 million deficit.
Those cuts originally included eliminating residential yard waste collection, ending funding for nurses in public schools and keeping most of the city-owned swimming pools closed this summer.
As often happens in the drama-loving Queen City, some of the cuts were partially reversed as alternate sources of funding were found to keep the services in a reduced form. For example, yard waste now may be co-mingled with other garbage left for curbside pickup instead of being separated for composting. Also, some cash was found to keep nurses at a few schools.
More on one of those reversals in a moment.
Because warring factions on City Council couldn’t reach a compromise for weeks, the budget impasse extended far longer than usual — well into the new year — and prompted a flood of excitable coverage in newspapers and on TV.
In the panic and last-minute scrambling, council tried to slip through some truly awful proposals like contracting the city’s police services to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office and abolishing the Citizens Complaint Authority, which was established during a period of police reforms overseen by a federal court to settle several racial profiling lawsuits. After public outcry, neither of those ideas was implemented.
Besides making some cuts, Mayor Mark Mallory and City Council ultimately decided to use $27 million in one-time sources of cash like borrowing from emergency reserve accounts and the worker’s compensation fund to patch over part of the shortfall. Also, it approved studies into possible changes that could yield future savings.
Since then, income tax collections have rebounded slightly, lessening some of the pressure.
As mentioned in this week’s “Winners and Losers” feature, one of the items initially cut was operations at 19 of the 25 municipal swimming pools. City Council agreed to close pools in Bond Hill, Evanston, Northside, Over-the-Rhine, Walnut Hills and the West End, as well as in several other neighborhoods.
The unexpected jump in tax collections prompted City Council in April to allocate $600,000 to open the pools if matching private funds could be raised.
Eventually, more than $417,000 was raised, which will allow all 25 pools to open. That’s good news for many inner-city children, who have little money and few recreational opportunities in the summer.
The turn of events reminded me of what was funded during last winter’s budget battle.
During all the hacking and slashing, most of the human services agencies that receive money from the city had to deal with a double-digit drop in funding. One that didn’t, however, was the Center for Closing the Health Gap.
That’s the nonprofit agency created a few years ago by Dwight Tillery, an ex-city councilman and former mayor who still is a major player in the local Democratic Party. The center, whose mission is “to lead the efforts to eliminate racial and ethnic health disparities in Greater Cincinnati through advocacy, education and community outreach,” got $200,000 from the city’s General Fund — just as it has received money from the city every year it’s been in existence.
The agency, which doesn’t provide any direct health services and duplicates similar efforts already provided by the Cincinnati Health Department, has been criticized as a “make work” gig for Tillery, yet it remains a budget priority for the city.
According to the center’s Form 990, which it must file annually with the Internal Revenue Service to keep its tax-exempt status, Tillery received a total of $168,520 in compensation as president and CEO for 2009, the most recent year in which information is available. Of that amount, $138,148 was paid in base salary, with $8,326 paid into a retirement account and $22,046 received in “nontaxable benefits.”
The center’s other employee is executive director Renee Mahaffey Harris. She received a total of $83,931 including $68,752 in base salary, along with $15,179 in other compensation.
Here’s how the center lists its program service accomplishments on its IRS paperwork: “Increased fruit and vegetable consumption and decreased sweetened beverage consumption.”
It also touts that it has an outreach program to encourage healthy eating and exercise in five local schools, along with training area churches to “implement health ministry programs” for their congregations.
For good measure, the center mounts a “Do Right!” physical challenge for children, publishes a weekly newspaper column and hosts community workshops. “Thousands of people were reached through these community events,” the IRS form insists.
Tillery, who holds a law degree from the University of Michigan, has no medical background or expertise. In fact, his main focus since leaving City Council in 1998 due to term limits has been to help local Democratic candidates get elected and boost African-American voter turnout.
During a political spat last year, Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke bragged in an email to a colleague about a state job that he helped Tillery secure.
Burke wrote, “I think even Dwight will acknowledge that I worked very hard to secure for him an appointment to the State Personnel Board of Review. He is being paid over $50,000 a year to serve on that Board. Dwight deserves that position, he earned it and he earns the pay.”
And if there’s any doubt that taxpayer money from the city provides the lion’s share of the center’s budget, the IRS form provides clarity.
It states that government funding accounted for 94.72 percent of its funding in 2009, and 95.35 percent in 2008. Under IRS rules, any amount above 33.3 percent qualifies the agency as “a publicly supported organization.”
In other words, Democrats on City Council are relying on you, dear taxpayer, to provide a job to their crony while trying to cut school nurses and close swimming pools.
No wonder it’s difficult for many residents to take City Hall’s cries of poverty seriously when it continues to fund self-serving items of dubious value.
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