A majority of newly elected council members say they’re committed to structurally balancing Cincinnati’s operating budget — a promise repeated by Mayor-elect John Cranley on the campaign trail and following the Nov. 5 election.
But budget specifics were few and far between in a series of interviews CityBeat conducted with seven of nine council members to get a clearer understanding of their priorities — beyond the streetcar project and parking privatization plan — once they take office in December.
And three re-elected council members claim it’s unrealistic and even dangerous to consider quickly structurally balancing the budget because of the drastic cuts such a promise could require.
Cincinnati’s operating budget has been structurally imbalanced since 2001. But under state law, cities still need to balance their operating budgets each year; that means City Council must locate and debate stopgap measures — typically unwanted spending cuts or tax hikes — every year the budget remains structurally imbalanced.
Given their stated goal to avoid any tax increases, the challenge for the new set of council members is to structurally balance the budget without tax hikes.
Republican Amy Murray, who is starting her first elected term in December, argues a structurally balanced budget is especially important in light of Cincinnati’s bond rating, which credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded in a July 15 report in part because of the city’s reliance on one-time sources to close annual budget gaps.
As someone who’s not currently on council, Murray says it’s difficult to delve deep into specifics without first looking at the budget numbers from the inside. But she insists that she will help establish a roadmap to a structurally balanced budget.
Part of that plan, according to Murray, should include more shared services with Hamilton County. She says the plan should also include a top-down reprioritization of city services.
“I think what often happens to the council is they get reactive,” she claims. “We need to look proactively.”
Pressed for specific services that the city and county could share, Murray says the final decisions should be up to a shared services commission. She plans to get the commission to reconvene upon taking office, but she’s vocally mindful that a similar initiative fell flat under Mayor Mark Mallory’s watch.
Democrat David Mann and Independent Kevin Flynn, both newly elected to council, similarly declined to offer specifics for structurally balancing the operating budget until they look at the numbers from the inside, although both told CityBeat they’re staking their first terms on making the tough decisions required to get to structural balance.
Democrat P.G. Sittenfeld, who won re-election with a very healthy first-place margin, says one budget option is to reduce the amount of management positions in the city government over time. As an example, he cited reductions in the Cincinnati Police Department that cut assistant chief positions from five to three.
“We’re talking healthy, six-figure salaries,” Sittenfeld says. “And crime went down as (former Cincinnati Police Chief James Craig) did that, because he kept the focus where he should have — on street strength.”
Still, Sittenfeld concedes the city can’t cut its way out of budget gaps and should instead rely on revenue growth in the long term. He says that’s already occurring as tax revenues begin coming in higher than projected.
That’s one area in which Democrats Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson and Wendell Young, who were all re-elected this year following their first elected terms on council, agree with Sittenfeld. They argue it’s going to be a lot more difficult to structurally balance the budget than others, particularly newcomers to City Council and the mayor’s office, have let on.
“We could build a structurally balanced budget if we cut $63 million … but it’s short-sighted,” Simpson says. “It would cripple us.”
Based on models she’s run with the city’s budget experts, Simpson says it’s unrealistic to expect a structurally balanced budget before five years.
Simpson points to three areas in particular that Mayor-elect Cranley and others have discussed cutting or sharing with the county: the Office of Environmental Quality, Department of Planning and Buildings and the Law Department.
Cutting or sharing the three departments might reduce short-term costs, she says, but it would weaken or eliminate city services that can generate or save revenue in the long term.
According to Simpson, dozens of requests from small businesses have been sitting in the Law Department for six months or more because the department’s small staff can’t handle the requests. She contends that if the city actually fortified the Law Department’s resources, the accepted small business deals would bring in more revenue and help balance the budget in the long term.
“There’s a lot of money locked up,” Simpson says.
Young agrees with the principle. He claims the city has already carried out drastic cuts and needs to focus on growth.
“We really cut a lot, and we’re starting to see it in terms of services,” he says. “We need to find ways to bring money into the city that we don’t currently have or we need to increase the revenue streams that we already have.”
To do that, the seven council members at least agreed that the city must do more to foster economic development in all of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods. They spoke of leveraging public-private partnerships to generate development, much like the city did in Over-the-Rhine and downtown with the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC).
But Young and Seelbach also voiced concerns that Cranley has been reportedly discussing plans with elected council members to get rid of the Focus 52 fund, which taps into bonds and casino revenues to finance neighborhood development projects, and instead allocate casino revenue to neighborhood projects on an annual basis.
“To me, that is incredibly disruptive for the amazing amount of progress that we’re starting to see in Bond Hill, in Price Hill, in Walnut Hills, in Westwood,” Seelbach says. “We have projects coming down the line that will truly transform some of these neighborhoods.”
At the very least, none of the council members say they are interested in reaching structural balance in the first year. Murray, the most fiscally conservative of the group that spoke to CityBeat, admits structural balance within one year would involve “draconian cuts” that would do more harm than good in the long term.
One area all seven elected council members agreed to protect is human services funding, which finances various organizations around the city that aid the homeless, jobless, poor and domestic abuse victims, among others.
The city’s established goal is to fund human services at 1.5 percent of the operating budget, but funding currently sits at roughly 0.4 percent after a decade of cuts. At the same time, child poverty hit a rate of more than 53 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
Given the data, Mann, Flynn, Seelbach, Simpson, Sittenfeld and Young say they actually want to increase human services funding over time.
Simpson also argues that the city should be doing more work to streamline collaboration between human service agencies and the city.
“We shouldn’t be doing our own separate work in poverty when the money that we give to human services funding is given in a different direction. It should all flow together,” she says. “And those organizations that we fund in the areas of poverty and homelessness should be our consultants on everything that we do from a policy and financial standpoint.”
Another area of agreement: Something has to be done about the city’s pension system, which faces an unfunded liability of $862 million in the next few decades. But it’s not clear what reform will involve and whether future retirees should expect reduced retirement benefits.
Mayor-elect Cranley previously stated he will appoint Independent Christopher Smitherman to head a council committee that will draw up a pension reform plan.
Smitherman and Republican Charlie Winburn, both incumbents who won re-election this year, were the only two elected council members who never responded to multiple emails and voicemails from CityBeat for this story. Smitherman and Winburn also failed to attend or send proxies to the council candidate forum hosted by CityBeat and the League of Women Voters on Oct. 5.
Kevin Flynn (Independent): Flynn says he wants to work with police, firefighters, the city’s sanitation workers and college law departments from around the city to clean up blighted buildings. He acknowledges the city doesn’t have the financial resources to fund more inspectors, but he argues other city employees could help locate blight issues before they take root. “If you have one house that deteriorates on the street, that affects the value of all of the other properties along that street,” he says.
David Mann (Democrat): “We need to find a way to deal with the reality that young men are killing each other in our streets,” Mann says. To do that, the city first needs to find out why youth and young adults sometimes turn to lives of crime and proactively solve the issues, according to Mann. That means providing better economic and schooling opportunities, which Mann claims could end up being cheaper than simply fielding more cops.
Amy Murray (Republican): As a bicyclist, Murray says she wants the city to build more bike trails. Speaking from personal experience, she says dedicated bike lanes sometimes aren’t enough and biking along the riverfront can still be a little scary even when there are dedicated lanes. In those spots, bike trails might be a better option, according to Murray.
Chris Seelbach (Democrat): Seelbach says he’s determined to make the city more inclusive. That involves finding a way to award more city contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses, which receive much less work from the city than other businesses. “It’s completely unacceptable,” Seelbach says. Other inclusion work includes LGBT initiatives, including setting up a domestic partner registry that would allow same-sex couples to register with the city and receive some legal acknowledgement.
Yvette Simpson (Democrat): For much of her first term on council, Simpson focused on issues related to Cincinnati’s youth. Simpson intends to continue that focus by first pursuing a study that will analyze youth issues and find how to best allocate public and private resources to address their needs. “It will transform the way that we serve young people and help us recover from what are really, really bad indicators in just about every area, from youth poverty to graduation rates to obesity,” she says.
P.G. Sittenfeld (Democrat): Sittenfeld has been heavily involved in Cincinnati Public Schools’ nationally recognized community learning centers initiative, which effectively turns schools into community hubs that leverage partnerships with other local institutions to bring in additional resources, ranging from health services to college preparation. But he says that, beyond the Health Department, the city hasn’t fully engaged in a partnership with CPS to maximize the initiative. To remedy the issue, Sittenfeld plans to help establish “a culture in City Hall” that allocates available resources to lift up schools.
Wendell Young (Democrat): Among the first local services people experience when they visit Cincinnati are local taxis, Young says, and he wants to strengthen the current options to make the city more inviting. Young already spearheaded reform that changed regulations and effectively made it legal to hail a cab in the city. But he says the city should go further and work with local taxi companies and regulators to make cabs more accessible, particularly for people with physical disabilities. ©