For better or worse, Cincinnati will have
to deal with
another major election cycle in 2013. With a few hot-button issues
already grabbing the public spotlight, a lot could be at stake when
voters pull the lever on Nov. 5 — making a proper understanding of the
candidates all the more important.
Most people get to know candidates through fragments of information spread out in multiple stories and media outlets, but a comprehensive question-and-answer format provides candidates with a chance to speak on their own terms. CityBeat already did a one-on-one with Democratic mayoral candidate John Cranley, which can be read here.
Next up, CityBeat sat down with Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, another Democrat who is running for mayor, to discuss her campaign and what ideas she’s bringing to the table. Qualls has been a strong advocate of the streetcar (“Back on the Ballot,” issue of Jan. 23) and parking plan (“Parking Stimulus,” issue of Feb. 27), and she says she wants to continue development in Downtown and Cincinnati’s neighborhoods to create sustainable growth. We asked her about those issues and more, and the extensive conversation (with some edits for clarity and brevity) can be read below.
CityBeat: How do you feel about the campaign in general so far?
Roxanne Qualls: I’m very excited about the campaign. You know, a mayor’s race is very different than a council race. A mayor’s race has many more components to it: higher fundraising goals and more intensive outreach. I’ve been very encouraged by the folks who are volunteering and those who are stepping up and making contributions. It’s still early, but I’ve been excited.
CB: What kind of support have you seen so far?
RQ: Support is good. A lot of neighborhood folks are coming forward, partly because of the work I’ve been doing with them on council to help them achieve their own visions for their communities and neighborhoods. And I’m also getting support from different groups of people who I’ve been working for a number of years on major projects that help move the city and also the neighborhoods forward.
CB: Before we get into parking and the streetcar, one of the resolutions passed by City Council yesterday asked Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Do you think there’s anything the city could do to be more inviting to immigrants?
RQ: Even though it was a resolution and is therefore a symbolic act of the council, that symbolic act was very, very important to the members of the immigrant community in Cincinnati because many other communities are unwilling to say they even want immigrants.
My own personal and professional belief is that if we’re actually going to grow as a city and really thrive in the future in a sustainable way, we have to encourage immigrants to come into the city of Cincinnati. If you look around the country at cities that have increased their population significantly, they don’t do it relying on baby boomers moving back to the city and Gen Y-ers — those folks are important, but they’re not sufficient. You have to have immigrants come into your community, buy up homes, buy up stores and regenerate and rejuvenate the neighborhoods.
As a city that went from over 500,000 people to now under 300,000, we have to fill that gap. When I’m mayor, I will set a goal that by 2025 we will increase our population by 100,000 people. We’re only going to do that with immigrants.
CB: So what kind of programs do you think would help in that area?
RQ: A couple things, but there are things already happening that many people are unaware of. For example, if you were to go to Roberts Paideia at Price Hill, you would find 30 percent of the children there were not speaking English in their households before attending school. So a very strong Spanish-speaking community is growing up in Price Hill. First and foremost, having an educational system that recognizes and responds is very important.
The other thing is to be a very welcoming community, particularly when it comes to issues of safety and security. We’re very fortunate that District 3 has become very responsive, as is District 4, to immigrants. The entire police department is sensitive, but we have a very high concentration of folks who are Latinos in District 3 — that’s why I focused on District 3 as very critical in terms of the response.
The third thing that we need to do is work with organizations like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Chinese Chamber of Commerce to really strengthen business relations and the support that’s necessary for many of the small businesses that provide opportunities and employment within those communities. As the city develops its small business program, we need to pay attention to the fact that very small businesses — under $100,000, let’s say, in terms of annual volume — are those businesses that really are neighborhood-serving. They’re businesses we should be encouraging within the immigrant community.
CB: One of the surprising statistics with public safety is that a very small amount of the police force — 2 out of 981 — speaks Spanish. Do you think there’s anything we could do to encourage more Spanish speakers?
RQ: There’s an increasing recognition that it’s important for people who provide services to speak more than one language, so the police department can encourage its members to speak more than English.
But there are other things we can do in general, not just that would impact the police. I’ve been trying to do something as simple as multilingual signage.
The city could also aggressively promote simultaneous translation via its own website and the information it puts out. On my own personal website, one of the things that we use is the Google Translator. So anyone who wants to read anything on the website, all they have to do is press the Google Translator and have it translate to any language.
CB: The other thing that was covered in City Council yesterday was the parking plan.
RQ: There are a couple things it’s going to do. Simply on the level of parking, it’s going to provide the resources to modernize the system. For the garages, that means all the capital improvements that are necessary. For the meters, that’s everything everybody has heard about in terms of putting in electronic meters, allowing the use of smartphone apps, making it much more convenient for people and giving us the ability as technology evolves over time to adapt. For example, we shouldn’t assume that 30 years from now there will be such things as meters in existence. We need to be able to adapt in that environment. Already in other countries, you don’t have meters, but you do have sensors and you do have means of paying, but it doesn’t involve a physical object to do it with. It’s all oriented toward customer service and staying up with the times.
The second thing is it gives us the resources to invest in things like the MLK/I-71 Interchange, which everybody, I believe, at this point agrees is a major economic development investment and will pay off in significant job growth in the medical-university area of uptown.
It also allows us to invest in some critical pieces of downtown development that involve garages and residential development that will help us capture the market. I think if you read all the papers, everybody should realize that there’s no available product to meet the demand for downtown housing. Any time something comes into the market, it is either rented out or sold out. So we need to bring residential online at a much faster pace in Downtown.
And we get to increase our reserves, so that the rating agencies will be encouraged that we’re taking steps to ensure that we can responsibly manage our budget. And for the moment, for fiscal year 2014, it will help us reduce the deficit.
So there’s, one, modernization itself and, two, the ability to invest in opportunities over the long term that will grow our revenues and help us become more sustainable as a city.
CB: With the modernization part, do you think it’s necessary to make this deal because the city can’t otherwise afford to make improvements?
RQ: If you look at the money that comes into the current parking system and look at the needs of the parking system, the current parking system can’t support the level of investment required for modernization. By doing this lease agreement, those upgrades can occur.
CB: On the deficit-reduction side, how do you think the city will solve its structural deficit once the one-time money does run out?
RQ: In fiscal year 2014, obviously a portion of the money is there to help balance the budget. Other members of council and I feel very strongly that this, starting now, is the opportunity to bring the structural deficit under control. Between June 2013 and July 2014, we need to put in place a deficit reduction plan.
Now, the city manager has begun to talk about some of that, but that needs to be accelerated. Among the things that we need to do to make it a realistic possibility is we need to bring certain players to the table: the folks who represent our collective bargaining units, fire, police and AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees). They have as much of an interest in figuring out how to deal with this issue as I do as an elected official, as the city manager does, as anybody does. So they really need to be at the table, talking — not in negotiations, but just talking — about how we’re going to begin to approach this in a way that ensures what we all want, which is a safe community that provides good quality jobs, great quality service and great quality of life.
The other people that can come to the table is the business community because they can bring their expertise, help and resources, but also the civic community and neighborhoods who are the ones who live and breathe the effects of anything that we do.
The other thing is that we already can begin to identify certain areas that we should be exploring. Something very simple, for example, is one of the major expense items is gas. We are buying new vehicles for the police department that are better for gas mileage, but we’re not doing that fast enough.
CB: Do you think any of the deficit reduction could involve attrition?
RQ: The bottom line for either police and fire is there are minimal service levels. For police, how many of the officers are actually available for the street? For the fire department, how do you make sure that the response time is within acceptable parameters and that the consequence of falling below a certain level isn’t such extensive brownouts that you end up endangering people’s lives?
My own personal feeling is there’s a lot of professional judgment that needs to be involved in this discussion and decision. I would be incredibly hesitant to fall below the minimum staffing levels without the support of Police Chief James Craig or Fire Chief Richard Braun.
CB: How do you feel about the controversy surrounding the emergency clause?
RQ: I think it’s nothing but a political controversy that’s generated for political gain and for political purposes. Council passes many of its ordinances with emergency clauses. In fact, the other candidate for mayor himself consistently voted for emergency clauses.
The emergency clause is necessary so that we can proceed to construct the budget for fiscal year 2014 by July.
CB: So you don’t think the referendum part of the emergency clause could be separated from the part that expedites the process?
RQ: No, because it is going to take until at least June to get everything in place. We would like to move as quickly as possible, so before we actually approve the budget by July 1, we actually have the money to balance it. If that doesn’t happen, the city manager will have to start sending out layoff notices. By law, we would be required to do that because we would not have that money in place.
CB: So not having the money would force Plan B or something like it?
RQ: Yes, a referendum would result in Plan B or something similar. Regardless of whether you want to call it Plan B or Plan Z, people should not be foolish enough to think that there would not be layoffs. You cannot balance a budget deficit of $25 million without personnel reductions.
CB: The other big item in the mayor’s race is the streetcar. I’ve talked to you about this in the past, and you said you will push through the next phase during your mayor’s term. How exactly do you envision that?
RQ: Currently, there are studies that are being undertaken that are looking for alternatives in streetcar circulation in the uptown area.
If we can connect the streetcar into uptown and have it circulate up there, you have it benefiting these institutions and immediately adjoining neighborhoods. One of the greatest pressures in very dense neighborhoods is that we want to take the pressure off of both the streets in terms of the volume of traffic and parking because parking garages are very expensive and consume a lot of land. We can create an environment in the uptown area that would have a great synergy that would result in the redevelopment of these neighborhoods. Once people get that as the vision, I think the streetcar, even for folks who will never use it, becomes more understandable.
CB: One of the recurring problems with the streetcar project has been delays. What would you do as mayor to have the streetcar ready in time for the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, which you previously said you would like?
RQ: I have said I want it ready in time for the 2015 All-Star Game, but that was before the three construction bids came in much higher than expected. The big issue immediately is how to get those costs under control. We have yet to hear from the administration; they’re still reviewing the bids and approaches to handling the cost issues.
As mayor, my approach to it would be to insist that the administration value engineer this project to ensure that for what is being invested, we are actually getting results that we want.
I am a firm supporter of the streetcar, but I also want people to be very clear that this is not an open checkbook. I don’t think anyone — supporter or opponent — has ever believed it’s an open checkbook. Within the budget that we have given, we should be able to build this system.
CB: What do you mean by value engineering?
RQ: Look at what the actual proposed design is. This is kind of standard in all major projects. You have all the designers and engineers who have put together the original designs for the system. Then what you do is have other eyes who are also experts sit down and start looking at it to ask if there are other things we can do to start saving money.
CB: Do you think the framework of the original bid process was off?
RQ: I think very strongly that it was probably off. We saw that reflected when over 80 contractors downloaded the bid documents and only three bids were received. That says something about those bid documents.
CB: A lot of the mayor’s race has focused on the streetcar and parking deal, but can you give a rundown of some other ideas you have for the city?
RQ: Absolutely. Well, we already talked about one (increasing the population of the city by 100,000). There are a variety of ways to do it — one of which is to be an opening, welcoming city to everybody, but particularly opening and welcoming to immigrants.
The second thing we need to do is look at the tax structure. Currently, there is a commission, which I helped establish, called Investing in the Future Commission, which is examining that and will be making recommendations on specific things that we can do to reward people for making the choice to live and work in the city. That’s very critical.
When looking at job creation, we know that we are very fortunate to have Children’s Hospital, the University of Cincinnati and all of the research coming out of the uptown area. We are very competitive as a region when it comes to patents, but we are laggards when it comes to commercialization of research. Given the institutions we’re blessed to have within city limits, we need to financially support the environments where commercialization can actually occur to make sure we are retaining startup businesses so that they don’t just start here, they stay here. Again, looking at the tax structure would encourage those startups to stay in a way we’re not doing right now.
When you’re looking at neighborhoods, redevelopment of neighborhoods is a critical piece of anybody’s agenda. The good news is we have a lot of good things happening, but neighborhoods need financial support. Part of the $92 million from the parking deal is to provide financial support to some neighborhoods. More importantly, there’s using the casino revenue to actually support transformative developments in neighborhoods. We’ve started to do that, but we have to expand.
Another area is a stronger partnership with the Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) system. There are many people who like to criticize CPS, but the reality is they have some great-performing schools. We need to make sure that we capitalize on that relationship by working in partnership with CPS to ensure that community learning centers are in enough schools so that any young family with kids has access. Right now, there are about 600 families on the waiting list because there’s not enough room. That’s a specific thing we could be doing right now that would really encourage young families with children to stay in the city.
CB: That covers everything I had to ask. Is there anything you would like to add?
RQ: This election for mayor is about vision, leadership and results. It’s also about looking to the future and saying yes to the future. Lots of decisions will have to be made by the next mayor that will be tough decisions, will require resources and will require investment. Cincinnati needs a mayor that is willing to say yes and work with people and organizations to move the community forward.