Speaking at a press conference on March 28, Mayor Mark Mallory and other city officials did not mask their contempt for the ruling that put the parking plan on hold earlier in the day, saying it will eliminate the passage of expedited legislation and force the city to carry out cuts and layoffs in public safety services to balance the 2014 budget. But council members Chris Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld say there are alternatives to cutting public safety.
The mayor’s press conference was in response to a ruling from Hamilton County Judge Robert Winkler that decided the city can’t use emergency clauses to avoid referendums, effectively opening the parking plan to a November vote and putting a stop to the plan as the city awaits the outcome of a referendum effort. City Solicitor John Curp said the city is appealing the ruling.
Mallory and City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. explained the city will now have to close a $25.8 million shortfall in the budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins July 1.
Dohoney said he has already ordered city departments to carry out Plan B, which will lay off 344 employees, including 80 firefighter and 189 police positions, and cut other city services to balance projected deficits.
“Part of the irony is we’re swearing in a recruit class tomorrow,” Dohoney said, then shook his head. “Too bad.”
In response, Seelbach and Sittenfeld called for a special City Council session on April 4 to get the city administration to answer questions about alternatives to the public safety layoffs.
Seelbach, who opposes the parking plan, has pointed to casino revenue and cuts in programs ranked poorly by the city’s priority-driven budgeting process as two potential alternatives to eliminating at least 269 public safety positions.
“We spent $100,000 on the priority-based budget process to give the public and a diverse cross-section of the entire city input on what the Council and the city should be spending money on,” Seelbach says.
In the midst of the parking plan debate, Seelbach proposed Plan S, which would redirect $7.5 million in casino revenue to help balance the deficit, cut $5 million based on the results of the city’s priority-driven budgeting process and put two charter amendments on the ballot that, if approved, would include up to a $10-per-month trash fee and increase the city’s admissions tax by 2 percent.
At the press conference, Mallory implied the plan is unworkable because it relies on November ballot initiatives. “We don’t have until November,” he said.
But Seelbach says City Council could pass a stub budget that would sustain the city financially until the ballot measures are voted on. If both the measures are rejected, City Council would then be required to make further adjustments to balance the budget.
Even without the ballot initiatives, Seelbach’s suggestions for casino revenue and cuts based on the priority-driven budgeting process could be approved by City Council to avoid at least two-thirds of the $18.1 million in public safety cuts outlined by Dohoney’s Plan B memo. Seelbach says further cuts could be made through the budget-driven priority process if necessary.
“It worries me that these threats of 344 layoffs is just an attempt to sell the parking plan,” Seelbach says. “Every option should be on the table.”
Meg Olberding, city spokesperson, previously told CityBeat that City Council could choose its own cuts and use other revenue, including casino revenue, to balance the budget.
“Council can use whatever revenue sources they want,” she said. “That’s why the (Plan B) memo … says we can either use this plan or another plan.”
In addition to meeting the July 1 budget deadline, the city has to expedite some layoff notices to meet union contracts, which can require a notice up to 60 days in advance.
If the city wins in appeals courts or if the referendum effort fails to gather enough petitions, any cuts or layoffs could be retroactively pulled back.
“Don’t sign the petition,” Mallory said. “If you sign a petition, you’re laying off a cop or firefighter.”
Curp says Winkler’s ruling also eliminates the city’s ability to expedite legislation with emergency clauses. Emergency clauses are often used by City Council to remove a 30-day waiting period on passed laws, and the city argues they also remove the possibility of a referendum. But with his ruling, Winkler effectively negated emergency clauses by deciding the city does have to wait 30 days before implementing legislation to give opponents time to carry out referendum efforts.
Dohoney said the delays make the city look sluggish. “One of the criticisms I’ve gotten is that this city takes too long to get deals done,” he said. “This complicates that.”
On March 6, City Council passed the plan to lease the city’s parking assets to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority to help balance the budget for the next two fiscal years and fund development projects around the city, including a downtown grocery store (“Parking Stimulus,” issue of Feb. 27).
Opponents say they’re worried the parking plan will cede too much control over the city’s parking meters, which they say will lead to a spike in parking rates. They have also criticized the extension on hours on parking meters, which would operate from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. downtown under the plan — an extension from the current hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The city says rate increases are initially capped at 3 percent or inflation, but the rates can change with a unanimous vote from a special committee, approval from the city manager and a final nod from the Port Authority. The special committee would be made up of four people appointed by the Port Authority and one appointed by the city manager.
Mallory says the city is not disputing voters’ right to referendum in a general sense; instead, he says the city needs to expedite the budget process to balance the budget before fiscal year 2014. ©