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by German Lopez 09.03.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Pensions at 11:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
city hall

Pension Amendment to Appear on November Ballot

City Council reluctantly allows ballot initiative to move forward

Despite unanimous opposition, City Council fulfilled duties dictated by the City Charter and voted to allow a controversial pension amendment to appear on the ballot this November.

Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls explained that all council members oppose the amendment, but it’s part of City Council’s ministerial duties to allow ballot initiatives if petitioners gather enough signatures to put the issue to a public vote. The Hamilton County Board of Elections announced on Aug. 12 that petitioners had gathered enough signatures to clear the 7,443 requirement.

The amendment would privatize Cincinnati’s pension system so future city employees — excluding police and fire personnel, who are under a separate system — contribute to and manage individual 401k-style accounts. Currently, the city pools pension contributions and manages the investments through an independent board.

City officials oppose the amendment. They say it will cost the city more and hurt retirement gains for city employees.

One new concern: As written, the amendment could force the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to revoke tax-exempt status for city employees’ retirement plans. Paula Tilsley, executive director of the Cincinnati Retirement System, says the new tax burden would force someone in a lower tax bracket with $100,000 in retirement savings to immediately pay $15,000 in taxes.

Supporters of the amendment, including out-of-state tea party groups, argue it’s necessary to address Cincinnati’s present and future pension liabilities, which currently stand at $862 million.

The current liability is a result of two issues: City Council has underfunded the pension system by varying degrees since at least 2003, and economic downturns have hurt investments in the city’s pension system.

That outstanding liability was one of the factors that led Moody’s, a credit ratings agency, to downgrade Cincinnati’s bond rating on July 15.

City officials say they’ve already taken steps to resolve future costs and the only remaining concern is how to pay for the current liability. In 2011, City Council raised the retirement age and reduced pension benefits for city employees and retirees.

“This council adopted some of the most sweeping changes to any public pension system in the country for current and future employees,” Qualls said.

Councilman Chris Smitherman clarified he doesn’t support the proposed amendment, but he says City Council has done a poor job with the current pension system.

“My recommendation to this council is to put forth a solution to solve the problem,” Smitherman said. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t say, ‘This is bad,’ and then underfund the pension.”

Tilsley says the pension board will make recommendations to City Council within a month to address the current pension liability. The board estimates the changes would keep the system 100 percent funded after 30 years.

CityBeat covered the amendment and the groups that might be behind it in further detail here.

Updated (2:17 p.m.): Updated to reflect the full City Council vote.

by German Lopez 08.21.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, 2013 Election at 10:04 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
pg sittenfeld

Sittenfeld to Appear on Ballot

Councilman collects more than 1,500 signatures

Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld has resolved his petition problems and will appear on the ballot for reelection this November.

“The (Hamilton County Board of Elections) confirmed last night we have more than enough signatures to be placed on the ballot,” Sittenfeld wrote in an email.

Sally Krisel, deputy director of the Board of Elections, says the board has so far verified more than 900 signatures out of the 1,500 Sittenfeld turned in. Council candidates need 500 to get on the ballot.

Sittenfeld was one of two candidates who faced petition problems last week. In his case, petitions were found to have crossed-out dates with corrections written on the back, which election officials said might disqualify hundreds of signatures. In response, Sittenfeld renewed his petition drive.

In a Facebook post this morning, Sittenfeld thanked a 93-year-old family friend, a former teacher, City Council candidates and other volunteers for helping with the effort.

Mike Moroski, who was told his original batch of petitions fell 46 signatures short, wrote on Twitter that he turned in more than 1,100 signatures this morning. In a statement, Moroski thanked his team and participants for helping him collect the signatures, which the Board of Elections will now need to verify.

The deadline for turning in City Council petitions is Aug. 22. Once the Board of Elections finishes verifying the numbers, it will release the full slate of candidates.

by German Lopez 08.20.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Pensions at 12:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
tea party pensions

Pension Amendment Has No Council Support

Tea party-backed reform would privatize Cincinnati’s pension system

Councilman Chris Smitherman told CityBeat he doesn’t support the pension amendment that will appear on the ballot this November, which means no council member approves of the controversial proposal.

The amendment would privatize Cincinnati’s pension system so future city employees — excluding police and fire personnel, who are under a separate system — contribute to and manage individual 401k-style accounts. Currently, the city pools pension contributions and manages the investments through an independent board.

City officials and unions claim the amendment will cost the city more and hurt retirement gains for public employees. Tea party groups say the amendment is necessary to address the city’s growing pension costs, including an $862 million unfunded liability.

“I do not support the amendment. I have introduced several solutions that have been ignored by council and your paper,” Smitherman wrote in an email.

The other eight members of City Council seven Democrats and one Republican — on Aug. 7 approved a resolution that condemned the tea party amendment. But Smitherman, an Independent, wasn’t present at the meeting.

CityBeat covered the amendment and the groups that could be behind it in further detail here.

by German Lopez 08.19.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Government at 11:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Qualls Calls for More Government Transparency

Disclosure and reporting requirements haven’t been updated since 1997

Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls today unveiled a motion that calls for the first expansion of local disclosure and reporting requirements since 1997 that would impose new rules on city officials, lobbyists and contractors and task the city administration with posting the disclosed information on the city’s website.

Qualls said the proposal is particularly timely as the Metropolitan Sewer District begins working on a federally mandated $3.2 billion, 15-year revamp of the city’s sewer system. That project will presumably involve a bevy of lobbyists as businesses rush to grab lucrative contracts granted by city officials.

“For citizens to have confidence that their government is working on their behalf, it must be transparent,” Qualls said in a statement. “Sadly, it often takes a scandal to make these kinds of reforms happen. The good news is that we can take these responsible steps now to instill safeguards and promote integrity and accountability through a healthy dose of sunshine.”

Qualls claims the updates would be particularly prudent given the rise of the Internet in the past 16 years.

“Technology has brought us into the age of the Internet,” she said in a statement. “The public has heightened expectations for ready, convenient access to information about the decisions of their elected leaders.”

The motion asks for various new rules, including clarifications for current requirements, greater protections for whistleblowers, a two-year restriction on becoming a local lobbyist after leaving public office and a requirement that city officials make known through writing their potential conflicts of interest when they recuse themselves from votes.

If the motion is approved by City Council, the city administration would be required to present the formal ordinance that would take up the proposed measures.

The proposal comes in light of scandals in Chicago, San Antonio, Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida and Cuyahoga County, Ohio, that led to changes in those local governments.

In July, Cincinnati’s government was mired in its own controversy after the city administration withheld a memo that criticized the city’s plan to lease its parking meters, lots and garages to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority.

Qualls, a Democrat who’s running for mayor, sent out the motion just a few days after John Cranley, another Democrat running for mayor, announced his innovation plan, which calls for greater government efficiency and transparency.

by German Lopez 08.14.2013
Posted In: 2013 Election, News, City Council at 03:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
mike moroski

Council Candidates Facing Petition Problems

P.G. Sittenfeld, Mike Moroski renewing drives

Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld and City Council candidate Mike Moroski are both facing issues that could keep them off the ballot this November, but both candidates are renewing their petition drives to correct the issues before it’s too late.

Council candidates must file 500 valid petition signatures to the Hamilton County Board of Elections by Aug. 22 to get on the ballot, but two different circumstances are putting those prospects in doubt for Moroski and Sittenfeld.

In Moroski’s case, he fell 46 signatures short of the 500 needed. Because the petitions were already filed, he now has to regather all of the necessary signatures and file them to the Board of Elections.

Moroski told CityBeat that he’s already collected more than 200 signatures in the past 24 hours and intends to turn in a batch of 800 to 900 before the filing deadline.

“We’re determined to get on the ballot, and we’re determined to win,” he says.

For Sittenfeld, the circumstances are a little more technical: Because dates were crossed out on various petitions and corrected on the back of the forms, the board isn’t sure whether the rules allow them to accept the signatures. If the petitions aren’t accepted, Sittenfeld would fall under the 500-signature threshold, even though more than 700 valid signatures were confirmed, according to Sittenfeld’s campaign.

To avoid the problems entirely, Sittenfeld is now regathering the necessary signatures.

“The four board members of the (Board of Elections) will make the final decision on the validity of my petitions and I hope and believe it is unlikely that they will invalidate my signatures,” Sittenfeld said in an emailed statement to supporters. “However, I am leaving nothing to chance and am determined to continue serving the citizens of our community.”

Both candidates are asking supporters who signed the old petitions to come back to them and sign the new ones. If not, they might not appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.

by German Lopez 08.08.2013
city hall

Morning News and Stuff

Council OKs development deals, racial disparity study advances, no MSD compromise yet

City Council met yesterday for the first time since June and passed various development deals that span six Cincinnati neighborhoods. The deals include a 15-year tax abatement for the second phase of The Banks, which will produce 305 apartments and 21,000 square feet of retail space; several other apartment projects; new Over-the-Rhine headquarters for Cintrifuse, a small business and startup incubator; the redevelopment of Emanuel Community Center; and a new homeless shelter for women in Mt. Auburn. The deals are expected to lead to 575 new apartments around the city, which could help meet the high demand for new residential space downtown.

City Council also approved a motion that asks the city administration to begin preparations for a disparity study that would gauge whether the city should change its contracting policies to favor minority- and women-owned businesses. The motion asks the administration to either use part of the upfront money from leasing the city’s parking meters, lots and garages to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority or find an alternative source of funding. The study is required because of a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court case, which declared that governments must prove there’s racial or gender-based disparity before changing policies to favor such groups. Since the city disbanded its last minority- and women-owned business program in 1999, contract participation rates have plummeted for minority-owned businesses and remained relatively flat for women-owned businesses.

Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials still have not reached a compromise on several local hiring and bidding policies for the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), which is owned by the county but run by the city. A moratorium on the controversial city policies expired on Aug. 1, prompting county commissioners to block an upcoming MSD project in a vote Wednesday. Councilman Chris Seelbach told WVXU that those working on a compromise just need a little more time, but he’s confident they’ll be able to reach an agreement. City Council passed hiring and bidding rules in May this year and June 2012 that require MSD contractors to meet certain job training requirements that council members say will lead to more local jobs, but county commissioners argue the standards are too strenuous and favor unions. CityBeat covered the dispute in further detail here.

State Reps. Connie Pillich and Denise Driehaus of Cincinnati will hold a press conference today asking Gov. John Kasich to launch an ethics investigation into JobsOhio, the privatized development agency. State Democrats have been particularly critical of JobsOhio since a Dayton Daily News report found six of nine JobsOhio board members have direct financial ties to companies that have taken state aid from the development agency. Republicans argue that JobsOhio’s secretive, privatized nature allows it to expedite deals that bring businesses and jobs to the state, but Democrats claim the set-up lacks transparency and fosters corruption.

Only one-third of Ohio school levies were approved in a special election Tuesday. Despite an increase in funding in the most recent two-year state budget, state funding to schools has been slashed since Gov. John Kasich took office.

The Charter Committee’s second round of endorsements for this year’s City Council elections went to Democrats Greg Landsman and David Mann and Republican Amy Murray. Previous endorsements went to Independents Kevin Flynn and Vanessa White and Democrat Yvette Simpson. The Charter Committee isnt generally seen as a traditional political party, but it holds a lot of sway in local politics.

The Cincinnati Horseshoe Casino’s monthly revenue for July was higher than it was in June but lower than March. For local and state officials, the trend up is a welcome sign as they hope to tap into the casino for tax revenue.

Cincinnati-based Kroger and Macy’s are facing a boycott for opposing legislation in Texas that would make it easier for women to sue over wage discrimination.

The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is finding a niche with smaller airlines like Ultimate Air.

An app dubbed “lockout insurance” lets users scan keys then 3-D print them.

by German Lopez 08.07.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Mayor at 05:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
mark mallory

Council Approves Various Development Deals

Mayor Mark Mallory praises day's work as "huge day of progress for Cincinnati"

City Council met today for the first time since June and passed several development deals and projects spanning six Cincinnati neighborhoods.

The approved deals include a 15-year tax abatement for the second phase of The Banks, which will produce 305 apartments and 21,000 square feet of retail space; several other apartment projects; new Over-the-Rhine headquarters for Cintrifuse, a small business and startup incubator; the redevelopment of Emanuel Community Center; and a new homeless shelter for women in Mt. Auburn.

The projects are expected to lead to 575 new apartments around the city. That could prove particularly timely for downtown Cincinnati, which is currently struggling to meet high demand from a growing market of aspiring property renters, leasers and buyers.

"Today is a huge day of progress for Cincinnati," Mayor Mark Mallory said in the statement. "The momentum has been building in our city for a while. And now, developers and businesses are lining up to do projects in the city because they see all of the progress and they want to be a part of it. This is the vision — our success is leading to more success."

Among the other items, Council passed a motion asking the city administration to look into a disparity study and a resolution condemning a ballot initiative that would change the city's pension program by pushing future public employees into a less generous 401K-style plan.

Today's meeting was Council's only full session for July and August, which is why the agenda was so packed. That's irked some council members and critics, who argue Council should be in session for more of the summer.

"Council has no shortage of issues to consider and challenges to address — this should NOT be our only Council meeting of the summer," tweeted Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld during today's meeting.

Council is scheduled to meet again on Sept. 11.

by German Lopez 08.07.2013
Posted In: City Council, News, Business, Racism, Parking at 11:45 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)
disparity study

Council Members Rally Behind Racial Disparity Study

Proposal uses parking lease funds to measure disparity among contracted businesses

Cincinnati council members and community leaders today explained and defended plans to use the parking lease to fund a disparity study that would gauge whether the city should change its contracting policies to favorably target minority- and women-owned businesses.

But before City Council unanimously passed the motion at today's meeting, it was amended to allow the city administration to find alternate sources of funding.

Since the city dismantled its last minority- and women-owned business program in 1999, contract participation rates for minority-owned businesses have plummeted, while rates for women-owned businesses have remained relatively flat.

But because of a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, governments must conduct a study to prove there's a race- or gender-based disparity before policies can be adjusted to favor such groups.

Cincinnati has not taken up a disparity study since 2002. That study found evidence of disparities but ultimately recommended race- and gender-neutral policies to avoid legal uncertainty that surrounded the issue at the time.

"This is an opportunity to respond to a complaint and concern that has been around for as long as I can remember," Councilman Wendell Young said.

City officials claim they couldn't conduct another study until the administration finished implementing recommendations from OPEN Cincinnati, a task force established in 2009 after Mayor Mark Mallory and his administration were criticized for neglecting the city's small business program.

But the holdup has also been brought on by the study's cost, which city officials currently estimate between $500,000 and $1.5 million. Some critics argue the money would be better spent elsewhere.

Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who's running for mayor this year, defended the cost by explaining a disparity study can potentially lead to economic development by lifting minority groups, who currently face unemployment rates higher than white Cincinnati residents. She said it's on the city to ensure everyone, including women and minorities, benefit from Cincinnati's economic growth.

Other critics, particularly mayoral candidate John Cranley, have criticized the motion's suggestion for funding. The motion asks the city administration to fund the study with part of the upfront money that will come from leasing the city's parking meters, lots and garages to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority, but it does allow the city administration to find other funding options if possible.

Cranley, who supports conducting a disparity study but opposes the parking lease, says the money should come from other, unnamed sources because parking funds are currently being held up while the city hashes out legal uncertainty surrounding the lease and the Port Authority works out contracts with private operators that will manage Cincinnati's parking assets.

In response to those concerns, Qualls said that "money doesn't grow on trees" and Council has to make do with what it has.

Councilman Chris Seelbach voted against the parking lease, but he supports using parking funds for the disparity study. He says that, while he may have voted against the lease, the vote is done and the money is there.

The amended motion was unanimously passed by City Council today. It asks the city administration to present a budget and timetable for the study at the Budget and Finance Committee's first October meeting.

Updated at 3:18 p.m. with results of City Council meeting.

by German Lopez 08.07.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Pensions, History at 09:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

Council to fund disparity study, pension reform signatures turned in, Goetz House might fall

Six out of nine City Council members signed a motion to use money from the city’s parking lease to conduct a disparity study that would gauge whether minority- and women-owned businesses should be favorably targeted by the city’s contracting policies. Democrats Roxanne Qualls, Yvette Simpson, Wendell Young, Chris Seelbach, Pam Thomas and P.G. Sittenfeld signed the motion. The study, which could cost between $500,000 and $1 million, is required to change city contracting policies after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that governments must prove there is a racial or gender-based disparity before changing rules to favor any specific race or gender. CityBeat first covered a disparity study in further detail here. Council members will hold a press conference about the issue at noon today.

Petitioners pushing to reform Cincinnati’s public retirement system with a controversial city charter amendment turned in almost 16,000 signatures to City Hall yesterday. Of those signatures, 7,443 have to be validated by the Hamilton County Board of Elections. The plan would put future city workers in individual retirement accounts similar to 401K plans used in the private sector. But city officials argue that, unlike private workers, public employees don’t get Social Security benefits on top of their pensions, which means public workers could get considerably less retirement money under the amendment than someone would in the private sector. Supporters of the amendment point to the citys struggles with properly funding its pension system, which led to a bond rating downgrade from credit rating agency Moody’s. Opponents of the amendment plan to hold a press conference in front of City Hall at 3 p.m. today or after today’s Council meeting, whichever is later.

A majority of City Council on Tuesday sided with the Windholtz family, who will now be able to sell and demolish the old Lenhardt’s restaurant building — also known as the Goetz House — in Clifton Heights. Only Councilwoman Yvette Simpson sided with community members who argued that the building should be declared a historical landmark and preserved. “If I were counting votes, I would go with the community. There are a whole bunch of you and a very few people named Windholtz,” Councilman Wendell Young said. “I believe that the courage to do what’s right this time is to side with the family.”

Election results from yesterday: The Norwood tax levy failed, the Arlington Heights levy failed with a tie vote and the Cleves tax levy passed.

Gov. John Kasich says there’s no need to change oversight over JobsOhio, the privatized development agency that has been mired in controversy in the past few weeks. Most recently, a story in the Dayton Daily News found six of nine members on the JobsOhio board had direct financial ties to companies receiving state aid. Republicans argue JobsOhio’s privatized nature allows it to move quickly with deals that bring in businesses and jobs to the state, but Democrats say the secretive agency is too difficult to hold accountable and could be wasting taxpayer dollars.

Former Gov. Ted Strickland is calling on Ohioans to act now and reduce the effects of global warming. Strickland is apparently siding with the near-unanimous scientific consent that global warming is real and man-made. Scientists generally want to reduce carbon and other greenhouse-gas emissions enough so global warming doesn’t exceed two degrees Celsius, but the planet is currently on a path to warm by five degrees Celsius. If that trend continues, there could be devastating effects, including more drought and other extraordinary weather events.

The second phase of The Banks might include a grocery store.

Procter & Gamble plans to move 50 customer service jobs from Cincinnati to San Jose, Costa Rica.

The house of Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who held captive and raped three women for more than a decade, was demolished today. The neighborhood is still celebrating the capture of Castro, who was sentenced to life plus 1,000 years last week, but many in the area are wondering how the man got away with his crimes for so long.

Entrepreneurs were more likely to cause trouble than teenagers, according to a new study.

by German Lopez 07.30.2013
Posted In: News, Budget, City Council at 10:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Council to Undo $4 Million in Budget Cuts

Human services, parks among programs getting funding restorations

A motion proposed by a majority of City Council today would use leftover revenue from the previous budget year to undo cuts to various programs, including human services, parks and the Health Department.

The restorations mean no city workers will be laid off as a result of the operating budget passed in May. Previously, 60 positions had been cut, but many employees remained in different offices while the budget situation was worked out.

The cuts were previously approved with the 2014 budget before council members knew final revenue numbers for fiscal year 2013, which ended June 30. Council had to pass the budget 30 days early because the city’s use of emergency clauses, which eliminate a waiting period on passed laws, was being held up in court.

The city ended up with roughly $10 million more revenue than projected in the past budget year. The Council motion uses nearly $4 million to undo some of the $20 million in cuts carried out in the latest budget. The rest of the extra revenue will be held until the city manager makes further suggestions, but some of that money will likely be saved for next year’s budget gap, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls said at a press conference.

Human services funding is getting more than $510,000 restored, putting the program at 0.4 percent of the operating budget. Cincinnati has historically set a goal of directing 1.5 percent of the operating budget to human services, which flows through various agencies that aid low-income and homeless Cincinnatians.

The Health Department is getting the largest restoration at $900,000, allowing the city to bring back positions affecting junked vehicles, rodent control, litter and weed response, infant mortality and more.

Parks will also get back $400,000 out of $1 million that was cut in the previous budget. Another $312,000 is being used to restore recreation funding, particularly to keep the Busch Center open.

Other programs getting money back: the Center for Closing the Health Gap, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, Film Commission, African American Chamber of Commerce, Urban Agriculture Program, Office of Environmental Quality, Neighborhood Support Fund, Neighborhood Business District Support Fund, Law Department and funding to 3CDC for Fountain Square maintenance.

Qualls claimed the higher-than-projected revenues are evidence the city’s economic strategy is so far successful.

“Cincinnati’s strategy of investing in jobs, neighborhoods, people is working,” she said. “We are seeing an increase in revenue as a result of investments we are making.”

Qualls also acknowledged that the budget debate has felt like a “roller coaster” for many citizens. Originally, Mayor Mark Mallory’s administration claimed it would have to lay off police and firefighters if the city didn’t lease its parking meters, lots and garages to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority. But when the parking lease was held up in a court challenge, Council managed to pass a budget without the public safety layoffs. Now, Council is undoing further cuts and moving forward with the parking lease.

After the press conference, Qualls told CityBeat that some of the unused revenue may also be used to finance a disparity study that would gauge whether the city should change its contracting policies to favorably target minority- and women-owned businesses.