There are lingering concerns about the ways programs designed to help neighborhoods will or won’t be funded under Mayor John Cranley’s first budget, which City Council passed June 4.
Some say deep cuts to redevelopment programs could slow growth in the city. And there are questions about last-minute additions that throw money to certain well-connected groups.
The budget cuts $4.5 million from various neighborhood development programs and delays repayment of $2 million designated for redevelopment to eight neighborhoods the city borrowed money from in 2011.
Meanwhile, through last-minute additions, the budget gives $1.5 million to nonprofit groups that did not go through the normal rigorous application process.
The reductions come just months after Cranley campaigned on the premise that he would focus on neighborhoods. Contrasting himself with opponent Roxanne Qualls in February, Cranley pledged he’d be the one spreading money around to the city’s 52 neighborhoods.
“She recently said putting money into the streetcar is good for neighborhoods,” Cranley said of Qualls. “I think putting money into neighborhoods is good for neighborhoods.”
Now cuts and delayed repayments could slow or halt major efforts to redesign and rebuild business and residential corridors in many of the city’s neighborhoods. The moves are drawing some criticism from those working to redevelop Cincinnati’s urban neighborhoods.
“I think it’s a hard budget for neighborhoods,” says Patricia Garry, executive cirector of Cincinnati’s Community Development Corporation Association, which is made up of 36 nonprofit development groups throughout the city. “As it stands right now, I think it’s slowing us down.”
Garry says money spent on redevelopment amounts to an investment in the city, one that pays huge dividends. She says other funding hinges on the money given by the city and that without it the development process can sputter.
Cuts include $500,000 from the Neighborhood Business District Improvement Program. Originally, the budget called for zeroing out the program’s $900,000 in funding altogether.
Eighteen neighborhoods asked for a combined $3.8 million through the program, and with the cuts some that originally qualified for money won’t get it.
An earlier plan floated by council member Charlie Winburn to give $30 million to the Cincinnati Port Authority, which oversees economic development, was not taken up in Cranley’s budget.
That plan was projected to generate some 7,000 jobs and more than $6.5 million in city income taxes.
Another blow to neighborhood-led redevelopment efforts came in the decision to delay repayment of millions in debt to neighborhood tax incremental finance districts in Avondale, Bond Hill, East Walnut Hills, Evanston, Madisonville, Oakley, Queensgate and Walnut Hills.
The city borrowed a total of $5 million from these neighborhood funds in 2011. So far, it’s paid $1 million back and was scheduled to repay another $2 million next year. Now it will wait until 2017 in order to keep the budget balanced. The money, gleaned from increases in property taxes in these neighborhoods, was marked for redevelopment efforts in those communities.
Neighborhoods like Madisonville could use those funds, says Sara Sheets of the Madisonville Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation.
The city still owes Madisonville nearly $800,000. Sheets’ organization is working to redevelop the neighborhood, including a business district at Madison Road and Whetsel Avenue.
While Sheets praised the budget overall, she noted that “since our development is practically shovel ready, the loss of that funding will surely be felt.”
Cranley’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but the mayor said in the past that the first priority for the budget was to provide basic services like police and fire and to avoid laying off city employees while still maintaining a balance of spending and income.
Not all community groups will go without in the budget. On June 2, council added spending for 11 social service organizations and neighborhood development groups.
It was a controversial move, mostly because these groups did not have to go through the same vetting process most nonprofit groups do. Some of the organizations receiving money in last-minute budget additions also have deep ties to the Cranley administration.
Bond Hill’s neighborhood development group was given $350,000 from the city’s Community Development Block Grant — a full third of the $1.15 million the city received through the grant.
One possible benefactor of that money is Steve Reece, who is looking to sell his Integrity Hall banquet facility in the neighborhood to the redevelopment group for $335,000. Reece campaigned on behalf of Cranley, who held events in Integrity Hall. Reece’s daughter, State Rep. Alicia Reece, also endorsed Cranley. The redevelopment group told The Enquirer that it hasn’t decided how it would use the money but that the purchase of Reece’s building is a possibility.
Cranley has denied discussing the sale with Reece and says he wasn’t involved with the push to give funds to Bond Hill’s neighborhood development corporation. Vice Mayor David Mann and council member Wendell Young made the motion to add the funding to the budget.
Other, non-redevelopment-oriented nonprofits also got a last minute boost. Mayor Dwight Tillery’s organization, Closing the Health Gap, got $500,000 from last week’s additions to the budget. The group promotes healthy eating among inner city kids, a goal also taken up by other groups including the city’s Health Department. Tillery served as co-chair of Cranley’s campaign.
Council members Yvette Simpson and Chris Seelbach questioned these additions, especially in light of the deep cuts found elsewhere in the budget for programs that went through an extensive vetting and ranking process. Both voted against portions of the budget.
Seelbach describes the situation as “frustrating.”
“Without any kind of, ‘Here’s who we are, here’s why we’re trustworthy,’ it seems sketchy to me,” he says.
“Instead of fully funding our tested, community-driven NBDIP program, this budget gives a majority of funds to private organizations,” Seelbach says. “It would be nice if we could have at least a presentation on who they are and what they’re going to do with the money.”
Simpson also decried the abandonment of the processes used to vet organizations that receive funding, saying it created the appearance of unfairness. She also had sharp words about cuts to organizations that went through those vetting processes.
“I was committed and part of an administration prior that was really invested in supporting neighborhood development in a significant way,” Simpson says, predicting the city will “regret” the cuts in the current budget.
“We’re going to see blight, and we’re going to see places where development isn’t happening,” she says. “I wish we hadn’t made that decision.” ©