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The 1.5 Percent Solution

By Stephanie Dunlap · October 19th, 2005 · All The News That Fits
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Cincinnati isn't usually noted for its compassion toward any underdogs besides its sports teams. But for more than 20 years the city's Human Services Policy has quietly set aside 1.5 percent of the general fund to support local human services agencies.

Mayor Charlie Luken cut that tradition short during the last budget cycle when, faced with a daunting shortfall, he cut the funding out of his proposed 2005-06 budget.

When city council members scrambled to cobble back together about $2.5 million of the $4.8 million Luken excised for 2005, they circumvented the city's Human Services Advisory Committee and its allocation process. That left agencies lobbying individual council members, and funding was scattershot.

"So agencies that got the money weren't very grateful because they figured they were entitled to it anyway, and agencies that didn't get it were mad," says Duane Holm, director of the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati.

Now, perhaps having been sufficiently overwhelmed by that experience, a tri-partisan coalition of city council members -- Democrat David Crowley, Republican Chris Monzel and Charterite Christopher Smitherman -- are leading the effort to permanently reinstate the 1.5 percent automatic human services funding as well as the role of the Human Services Advisory Committee (HSAC) in deciding how to parcel out those funds.

Holm thinks the HSAC was initially a victim of its own success.

"It worked so well for so long that many of us didn't realize what we had until it was removed from last year's budget," Holm said in a statement to council's Finance Committee.

During that Oct. 17 meeting, the committee voted unanimously to forward the motions -- reinstating the 1.5 percent set aside and the HSAC review process -- for a vote by council Oct. 19.

Councilman Jim Tarbell said he supported the motions in principle but encouraged the city to reexamine its mission.

"We are charged with basic services, and I mean basic services," he said. "It is too big a burden for this city to constantly have to be responsible for certain services."

Providing homeless-related services isn't the city's job, especially because homeless people, being transient, aren't from Cincinnati or anywhere else, Tarbell said.

Of course, as advocates for the homeless have pointed out, many homeless people aren't transient at all; they're women and children displaced by domestic violence, job losses or other circumstances.

Tarbell said he hoped to raise the city's admission tax to cover both human services funding and the arts funding that was also slashed in the last budget cuts.

Georgine Getty, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, says Luken has threatened to veto the legislation on grounds that it will infringe on the budgeting process under the new "strong mayor" system. But there already are enough names on the motions to override his veto.

HSAC member Kathy Atkinson acknowledges concerns that the body hasn't communicated well enough with council. On the other hand, she says council doesn't pay the committee or the agencies it works with much attention.

"Everybody understands that there has never been a fully established communication," Atkinson says.

HSAC's 17 members stand ready to resume their work, and they pledge to work more closely with council and the city administration, Atkinson says. But in return the committee would appreciate four more members for the full 21-person complement. They'd also appreciate a little more consideration next time.

"It was highly offensive, to say the least, that we had countless hours put into the process and then to have it ignored," Atkinson says. "If you're going to administer your policy this way, let us know, because we all have other things we could do with our time."

Her volunteer gig is probably safe; it looks like council members aren't eager to take on the job again.

Besides, Getty points out, in an election year no one candidate running for re-election wants to be the one to vote against battered women.



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