It's the 1980s and '90s all over again in Cincinnati.
In a blatant attempt to do an end-run around the mayor, four members of
Cincinnati City Council met with The Enquirer's editorial board today to unveil a budget-cutting plan that includes merging the city's Police Department with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
The council faction hadn't discussed the far-reaching concept previously with Mayor Mark Mallory or City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. but had held discussions with Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. about the idea.
Mallory and Dohoney received letters from Leis about the concept this morning, about the same time that the council faction was pitching the idea to The Enquirer.
“I have been contacted by representatives of the city of Cincinnati seeking information about the feasibility of contracting police services with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office,” Leis wrote. “After careful consideration ... I am thoroughly convinced that a single agency providing law enforcement service to both the city and county would significantly improve the quality of service at a greatly reduced overall cost.”
The council faction pitching the idea is composed of Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and Councilman Wendell Young, both Democrats; Councilman Jeff Berding, an independent; and Councilman Chris Bortz, a Charterite.
Mallory wasted no time in shooting down the idea, replying in a letter to Leis shortly afterward.
“I am entirely opposed to disbanding the Cincinnati Police Department,” Mallory wrote. “While federal, state, county and city governments across the country are facing serious, short-term budget deficits due to the world economy, I will not entertain using those problems as an excuse to abdicate our most important duty as a city.”
Later, Mallory used blunt language to describe what he believes is the proposal's true motivation.
“I have worked hard with the Fraternal Order of Police, Queen City Lodge No. 69, to pass budgets that have prevented police layoffs in the last two years,” Mallory wrote. “The proposal by representatives of the city to privately contract police services is a brazen and shameless attempt at union-busting, and I will never support it.”
The council faction's proposal comes just days after it asked the city's police and fire unions for $20 million in concessions to help avoid a deficit in 2011-12.
Oddly, City Council just approved the latest contracts with the unions not long ago; the firefighters' two-year contract was approved in October, while the police union's three-year contract was approved in 2009.
The latest police union contract went to fact-finding in February 2009 and the fact-finder's recommendations were issued on April 23, 2009. The administration recommended that City Council allow the recommendations to take effect without any formal action, and council did so.
The most recent firefighter union negotiations also went to fact-finding, with a fact-finding report issued on Oct. 22, 2010. The administration also recommended City Council let the recommendations take effect without formal action, which the council did.
Apparently, Qualls, Berding and Bortz have short memories.
To avoid a $62 million deficit during the next two years, Dohoney has proposed numerous cuts at City Hall, including laying off 144 firefighters and 131 police officers. Overall, 390 full- and part-time employees would be laid off throughout municipal government.
When Qualls and Berding asked the police and fire unions for concessions on Monday, they gave them until today for a response. The faction is seeking $10.3 million in concessions from firefighters and $9.2 million from police.
Specifically, they are asking the unions to give up certain payments and bonuses allowed in their contracts including ones for longevity, shift differential, overtime, tuition reimbursement, uniform allowances and for “working out of class,” which means filling in for a position a person normally doesn't work, as well as “across the board salary reductions.”
The deadline for the unions' reply is 8 p.m. today. City Council plans on approving a budget on Dec. 21.
So, are Qualls and company serious about a merger or are they merely striking a public pose to pressure the unions? Who knows, but two things are clear.
First, the time to seek concessions from the unions is during contract negotiations. Under Ohio law, police officers and firefighters are prohibited from going on strike. Instead, any contract disputes must be settled by binding arbitration.
The city has had budget problems for years and deficits are par for the course, so it's not a surprise that cuts must be made. It's disingenuous for Qualls and company to have approved the labor union contracts, then seek changes later.
It's worth noting that the one council member who dared raise these issues ahead of time — Democrat Greg Harris — was defeated in the 2009 elections after being targeted by the unions. Harris' position showed political courage and leadership, and his stance might have prevailed if his cowardly colleagues had stood in unison back then.
Secondly, the overture to Leis might have violated Cincinnati's charter. Under charter changes made in 1999 that took effect in 2001, the mayor is the city's official representative in deal-making with other jurisdictions.
The document reads: “The mayor shall be recognized as the official head and representative of the city for all purposes, except as provided otherwise in this charter.”
When groups were campaigning for the charter change in the late '90s, they said it was needed because City Council had “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” In other words, the previous system — in which the mayor was also a council member and appointed by his peers — led to members constantly jockeying for position and undercutting each other.
Among the supporters back then for converting to the direct election of a more powerful mayor were Qualls, Berding and Bortz.
Yet another example of cynical politicians stating, “Do as we say, not as we do.”