Just a few months after the city avoided laying off cops, firefighters and other city employees, City Manager Milton Dohoney on Sept. 15 proposed restoring $26,640 in vehicle allowances that would subsidize car use for the city manager, the mayor and other director-level positions in the city administration.
City spokesperson Meg Olberding told CityBeat that restoring the allowances is a matter of basic fairness and keeping both the city’s word and competitiveness.
Olberding says car allowances are typically part of compensation packages offered in other cities that compete with Cincinnati for recruitment. The allowances, she explains, were also promised to city directors as part of their pay packages when they were first hired for the job.
“Cutting it reneges on their original offer and part of the pretense under which they took the job,” Olberding says, adding that failing to restore the compensation promises could make future potential hires reluctant to work in Cincinnati.
But given Cincinnati’s ongoing budget problems, some council members say the proposal is out of touch.
“Are you kidding me?” asked Councilman Chris Seelbach at the Sept. 16 Budget and Finance Committee meeting. “I just question the judgment of an administration that would make that kind of recommendation given our current financial situation. I’m offended that it would be even recommended.”
Even though City Council managed to avoid layoffs in this year’s budget, Cincinnati’s operating budget remains structurally unbalanced, which means the city will have to come up with new revenue or cuts to balance the budget in upcoming years.
Seelbach told CityBeat he doesn’t agree with the competitiveness arguments.
“I’m more concerned with the garbage worker who’s making barely enough to get by and would love to get a quarter-on-the-hour raise, much less a $5,000 car allowance,” he says. “If someone wants to leave their position when they’re making $100,000-plus because we’re not going to give them a $5,000 car allowance, I’m convinced we can find someone just as capable, if not more capable, that would be thrilled with a $100,000-plus salary with no car allowance.”
Still, Olberding points out that city directors often need to drive more than the typical worker, whether it’s to get to public meetings, in case of an emergency or as a natural consequence of being on call 24/7. She says that justifies what she sees as a small cost.
The restoration was tucked into a proposal from the city manager that restores more than $6.7 million in previous cuts by using revenue left over from the previous budget cycle. The car allowance portion is about 0.3 percent of the total proposal and less than one-hundredth of a percent of the city’s overall operating budget.
For some city officials, the issue gets to what they perceive as a disconnect between private individuals and the government: Although thousands of dollars might seem like a lot of money to the typical person, the sum is usually worth much less than a penny on the dollar in city budget terms.
But Seelbach says garbage collectors and other city workers who haven’t received a raise in years would be thrilled to split $22,000, even if the sum doesn’t mean much in total budget terms.
“It shows a lack of respect for the people who make this city work,” Seelbach says.
The proposal also comes shortly after a tense budget showdown and in the middle of an election year for City Council and the mayor’s office.
Dohoney repeatedly said throughout the past year that the city would have to lay off 344 employees, including 189 cops and 80 firefighters, if it didn’t lease its parking meters to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority. The city ultimately avoided the layoffs without the parking lease by making cuts in various areas, including the city’s parks, and tapping into higher-than-expected revenues, but the city is still pursuing the lease to pay for economic development projects.
City Council will take up the restoration measures at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting on Sept. 24.
Updated at 4:09 p.m. with comments from Councilman Chris Seelbach.