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by German Lopez 06.24.2013
Posted In: News, Streetcar, Economy, City Council, Commissioners at 08:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Morning News and Stuff

Streetcar vote today, sewer project compromise reached, "megadeals" fail expectations

The federal government is committing another $5 million to Cincinnati’s streetcar project, but the city must first close the budget gap that has recently put the project in danger. The U.S. Department of Transportation is also asking the city to restore certain aspects of the project, including a passenger information system and a screen or wall that would block power substations from public view. City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee is expected to vote on the project’s $17.4 million budget gap today. The latest proposed fixes from the city manager would pull funding from multiple capital projects, including improvements around the Horseshoe Casino, and issue more debt.

Cincinnati and Hamilton County announced a compromise Friday that will end the county's funding hold on sewer projects. As a result, the city will be required to rework its “responsible bidder” ordinance and repeal the “local hire” and “local preference” laws that incited county commissioners into passing the funding hold in the first place. The city says its responsible bidder law creates local jobs and encourages job training, but the county argues that law’s rules favor unions and push up costs on Metropolitan Sewer District projects. CityBeat covered the city-county conflict in further detail here.

Ohio is No. 3 in the nation for “megadeals” — massive government subsidies to corporations that are meant to encourage in-state job creation — but a new report found many of the deals rarely produce the kind of jobs initially touted by public officials. For Cincinnati, the risks of megadeals are nothing new: In 2011, the city’s $196.4 million megadeal with Convergys collapsed when the company failed to keep downtown employment at or above 1,450, and the company agreed to pay a $14 million reimbursement to the city.

As of Friday, Cincinnati is officially leasing its parking meters, lots and garages to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority. The Port announced it had signed the lease Friday, putting an end to a four-day controversy over whether the agency was going to sign the lease at all. The city will get a $92 million lump sum and at least $3 million a year from the deal, according to city estimates. Current plans call for using the money to help balance city budgets and fund economic development projects, including the I-71/MLK Interchange.

The prison company that owns and operates a northeastern Ohio prison lost four contracts around the nation in June, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In May, CityBeat released an in-depth report looking at the Corrections Corporation of America’s handling of the Lake Erie Correctional Institution, finding evidence of rising violence and unsanitary conditions.

About one in three Ohio children live in a home where neither parent has a full-time, year-round job, and a quarter now live in poverty. Although Ohio’s overall ranking improved in Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual report card on the well-being of children, the state worsened in three out of four economic indicators.

President Barack Obama will make a speech tomorrow unveiling sweeping plans for climate change. The president is expected to impose a series of regulations, particularly on power plants, with executive powers, which means the plans won’t require congressional action.

Ohio gas prices are still coming down this week.

Plants apparently do math to get through the night.

Some diseases, including some types of cancer, are now being diagnosed by smell.

Got questions for CityBeat about anything related to Cincinnati? Today is the last day to submit your questions here. We’ll try to get back to you in our first Answers Issue.

CityBeat is looking to talk to convicted drug offenders from Ohio for an upcoming cover story. If you’d like to participate or know anyone willing to participate, email glopez@citybeat.com.

 
 
by German Lopez 06.21.2013
Posted In: News, County Commission, City Council at 03:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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City, County Work Out Compromise on Sewer Projects

Council to rework "responsible bidder" ordinance

Cincinnati and Hamilton County today announced a compromise that will end the county's funding hold on sewer projects, allowing the projects to move forward. As a condition, the city will have to rework and repeal the controversial laws that incited county commissioners into approving the hold in the first place.

As part of the deal, Commissioner Chris Monzel will ask the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners to immediately repeal a hold on Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) projects.

On the city's side, Councilman Chris Seelbach will ask City Council to immediately repeal so-called "local hire" and "local preference" rules, which require a certain percentage of contractors' workforce be local residents.

The city, county and their partners will then work on changing the city's responsible bidder ordinance before new rules are officially implemented on Aug. 1.

In May, City Council modified the responsible bidder ordinance originally passed in June 2012. The changes were supposed to trigger in August, but the compromise may alter those changes altogether.

Under the current language, the ordinance forces MSD contractors to establish specifically accredited apprenticeship programs and put money — based on labor costs — toward a pre-apprenticeship fund.

The city argued the programs will help create local jobs and train local workers, but the county criticized the rules for supposedly favoring unions and imposing extra costs on MSD projects.

Meanwhile, MSD is facing pressure from the federal government to comply with a mandate to retrofit and replace Cincinnati's sewers. MSD estimates the project will cost $3.2 billion over 15 to 20 years, making it one of the largest infrastructure projects in Cincinnati's history.

But the project was effectively halted by the county commissioners' funding hold, which forced the city and county to hastily work out a compromise.

CityBeat covered the county-city conflict in further detail here.

 
 
by German Lopez 06.18.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Parking at 03:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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City Signs Parking Lease

Mayor, City Council could make changes

The city signed an agreement Monday to lease its parking meters, lots and garages to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority, but the mayor and City Council may make changes to the plan before its implemented.

The city tweeted the news of the signing to several reporters today with a caveat: “Changes to hours etc. can still be made.”

The caveat comes after a majority of City Council asked City Manager Milton Dohoney to give council more time to make changes to the parking plan. Council approved the parking plan in March, but that was in the middle of a tenuous budget process that has since finished with the passing of a balanced budget.

Now, a majority of City Council is pushing to rework the deal. Democrats Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld, Pam Thomas and Laure Quinlivan, Republican Charlie Winburn and Independent Chris Smitherman support reworking or repealing the parking plan.

In particular, Seelbach and Quinlivan have suggested reducing or eliminating the expansion of parking meter operation hours. The original plan expands hours to 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. downtown and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in neighborhoods, but private operators wouldn’t have the ability to further expand hours.

How much City Council will be able to do remains uncertain. City Solicitor John Curp previously told City Council that a supermajority is not enough for a repeal because Mayor Mark Mallory, who supports the parking plan, can hold any ordinances until Nov. 30, which marks the end of the current City Council session.

Jason Barron, Mallory’s spokesperson, told CityBeat the mayor would reject a repeal, but he’s open to changes.

“There will be financial repercussions to that,” he said, alluding to possibly smaller payments from the Port Authority. “But there’s a ton of flexibility in this plan.”

Still, Barron says the city won’t spend any funds until there is legal certainty, meaning until potential appeals are exhausted.

At the center of the legal battles: Whether an emergency clause allows the parking plan to avoid a referendum.

Opponents gathered more than 12,000 signatures earlier in the year for a referendum effort, but the referendum may never come to pass in the aftermath of recent court rulings.

The latest ruling from the Hamilton County Court of Appeals decided the city can use emergency clauses to avert referendum efforts on passed legislation, on top of bypassing a 30-day waiting period on implementing laws.

In other words, since the parking plan had an emergency clause attached to it, the plan is not subject to referendum.

The appeals court later refused to delay enforcement of its ruling, which allowed the city manager to sign the lease within days.

Opponents are attempting to appeal the ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court.

For Cincinnati, the parking plan will provide $92 million in an upfront payment, followed by at least $3 million in estimated annual payments that the city says will eventually grow to $7 million and beyond.

The city plans to use the lump sum to rescind budget cuts, help balance future budgets and fund economic development projects, including the I-71/MLK Interchange.

Opponents of the plan argue it cedes too much control of the city’s parking assets to private operators and could hurt neighborhoods and downtown by expanding parking meter operation hours and increasing meter rates.

Correction: The city signed the lease Monday, not Tuesday as originally reported in the story. The city made the announcement Tuesday, which caused confusion and miscommunication.

 
 
by German Lopez 06.17.2013
Posted In: News, Health care, City Council, Gun Violence at 09:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Morning News and Stuff

Ohioans support Medicaid, bill would ease gun rules, Smitherman steps down from NAACP

Got questions for CityBeat about anything related to Cincinnati? Submit your questions here and we’ll try to get back to you in our first Answers Issue.

CityBeat is looking to talk to convicted drug offenders from Ohio for an upcoming cover story. If you’d like to participate or know anyone willing to participate, email glopez@citybeat.com.

A new poll from the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati found a majority of Ohioans support expanding Medicaid coverage, but state legislators have passed on a federally funded expansion in their latest budget bills and other legislation. About 63 percent of 866 Ohioans asked between May 19 and June 2 supported the expansion, with a margin of error of 3.3 percent. The question was part of the Ohio Health Issues Poll, which the University of Cincinnati’s Institute for Policy Research has conducted for the Health Foundation each year since 2005.

An Ohio bill would ease restrictions on semi-automatic magazines, making it so gun owners can more easily purchase high-round clips for their semi-automatic weapons. Supporters of the bill say the change helps differentiate between automatic and semi-automatic weapons — a differentiation that doesn’t currently occur under state law. Critics argue the bill makes it easier for offenders to carry out violent shootings, such as the recent massacre in Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Councilman Chris Smitherman is stepping down as president of the local branch of the NAACP while he runs for re-election. If he wins the election, Smitherman will then offer his resignation, which the NAACP's local executive committee can accept or reject. James Clingman, a vice president of the NAACP and founder of the Greater Cincinnati African-American Chamber of Commerce, will take Smitherman's spot  for the time being. Before the move, Smitherman was criticized for engaging in partisan political activity as he ran for re-election, which is generally looked down upon by the NAACP and federal rules regarding 501(c)(3) organization like the federal branch of the NAACP.

The world’s most advanced solar plane touched down in Cincinnati Friday before continuing its record-breaking journey across the nation to Washington, D.C.

Apparently, cities with more room to grow actually grow more. For Cincinnati, that could be a good sign as the city moves to build more apartments.

The Columbus Dispatch says Internet cafes make gambling more convenient and accessible to problematic gamblers. As a result of recently passed legislation, Internet cafes are being effectively shut down around the state.

Ohio gas prices are coming back down.

If someone wants to get away from the U.S. government, Popular Science has a few suggestions.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology built a robot that helps people be less awkward.

 
 
by German Lopez 06.14.2013
Posted In: News, City Council at 12:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Smitherman Temporarily Stepping Down from NAACP

Council member could permanently resign if he wins re-election

Council member Chris Smitherman announced in a statement today that he will leave his post as president of the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP while he runs for re-election to City Council.

If he does win re-election, Smitherman will offer his permanent resignation to the local chapter's executive committee, which can then accept or reject Smitherman's leave.

James Clingman, a vice president of the NAACP and founder of the Greater Cincinnati African-American Chamber of Commerce, will take Smitherman's spot for now.

Smitherman, City Council's sole Independent, has come under criticism recently to step down from his NAACP post as he runs for office.

Others have also criticized Smitherman's involvement with political organizations like the conservative Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and his support for Republican City Council candidates — involvement and support that critics argue are too political for the NAACP.

A memo titled "Election Year Dos and Don'ts" from the NAACP tells members to avoid partisan, political activity.

"Although NAACP units are 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organizations, the national NAACP is a 501(c)(3) organization which is restricted in how it can assist people in registering or getting out to vote. In addition, NAACP policy specifically prohibits units’ engagement in political campaign activity. This means that NAACP units cannot endorse or oppose candidates running for public office, make financial or in-kind contributions to candidates, political parties, or PACs, or engage in other activity that is designed or targeted to influence the outcome of any candidate election," the memo reads.

By separating himself from the NAACP, Smitherman can continue his political activities without violating federal and national NAACP rules.

 
 
by German Lopez 06.12.2013
Posted In: City Council, Development, News at 02:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Council Approves Downtown Grocery Store Project

Plan includes luxury apartment tower, garage

City Council unanimously approved a development deal today to build a grocery store, luxury apartment tower and garage at Fourth and Race streets downtown.

With council approval, construction could begin later this year, with developers hoping to finish the project in 2015.

The $80 million deal with Indianapolis-based development company Flaherty and Collins was approved following City Manager Milton Dohoney’s urging earlier today.

“If we wait any longer on the parking deal, we put this deal at risk. With the housing capacity issue downtown and decade-long cry for a grocery store, we must move forward,” Dohoney said in a statement.

The city’s share of the project will cost $12 million. As part of the deal, the city will provide the money through a five-year forgivable loan financed by urban renewal funds, which are generated through downtown taxes and can only be used for capital projects downtown. The funds can’t be used for operating budget expenses such as police and fire.

For more information on the project, read CityBeat’s original story on the Budget and Finance Committee hearing here.

 
 
by German Lopez 06.11.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Budget, Voting at 09:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Morning News and Stuff

Downtown grocery advances, city pension in trouble, county to investigate “double voters”

Got questions for CityBeat about, well, anything? Submit them here, and we’ll try to get back to you in our first Answers Issue.

City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee approved a development plan for Fourth and Race streets to build a downtown grocery store, a luxury apartment tower and a garage that will replace Pogue’s Garage. The project will cost $80 million, with the city paying $12 million through a five-year forgivable loan and private financing paying for the remaining $68 million. The city’s loan is being financed through urban renewal funds, which are generated through downtown taxes and can only be used for capital investment projects downtown. The project was originally attached to the city’s plan to semi-privatize its parking assets, but the city administration says the urban renewal funds opened up after a hotel-convention center deal collapsed.

The city’s pension fund saw a return of 12 percent in fiscal year 2012, but the amount of money the city owes and should contribute to the pension fund continues to go up. The higher costs will likely force City Council to put more money toward the pension, which means less money for other services. City Council has underfunded the pension system by varying degrees since 2003 — a problem that was further exacerbated by the economic downturn of 2008, which cost the city’s pension fund $102 million. Consultants suggested City Council view the pension fund as “not being of good health” and make changes that would help make the pension fund more “robust” and less volatile.

As county and state officials move to investigate and potentially prosecute 39 “double voter” cases, local groups are pushing back with warnings that the investigations could cause a chilling effect among voters. Most of the cases cover voters who mailed in an absentee ballot then showed up to vote on Election Day. Although the voters voted twice, their votes were only counted once. Critics of the investigations, including Hamilton County Democrats, cite Ohio Revised Code Section 3509.09(B)(2), which says voters who show up to vote on Election Day after filing an absentee ballot should be given a provisional ballot. Hamilton County Republicans say they’re not prejudging anyone and just want an investigation.

Following a report that found Ohios juvenile correction facilities are among the worst in the nation for rape and other sexual assaults against incarcerated youths, the state is assigning assessors to the facilities to ensure proper protections and improvements are being put in place.

The Greater Cincinnati Port Authority is looking to expand its coverage to better market the region. The Port Authority’s plans call for enlisting 18 counties across Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

A derailed train hit a local electrical tower yesterday, temporarily shutting down power for part of the region.

Fatal collisions between cars and trains at public railroad crossings increased in 2012 to the highest level since 2008.

The former Terrace Plaza Hotel was sold, but it’s not clear what will come next for the building.

An experimental form of male birth control involves injecting gold into testes and zapping them with infrared light.

Another one of Saturn’s moons may contain an underground ocean.

 
 
by German Lopez 06.06.2013
Posted In: News, Education, City Council, Drugs at 08:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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Morning News and Stuff

City, county clash over law; Senate restores some school funding; Jim Berns misleads public

Got questions for CityBeat about, well, anything? Submit them here, and we’ll try to get back to you in our first Answers Issue.

Also, take our texting while driving survey here.

With a $3.2 billion price tag and 15- to 20-year time scale, Cincinnati’s plan to retrofit and replace its sewers is one of the largest infrastructure projects in the city’s history, but the program is experiencing hurdles as the city and county clash over how to reward contracts and whether the government should have a say in training employees. Cincinnati recently passed and modified a “responsible bidder” law that sets rules for apprenticeship programs and a fund for pre-apprenticeship programs, which Councilman Chris Seelbach says help promote local jobs and job training. But critics, backed by county officials and business organizations, say the law puts too much of a burden on contractors.

The Ohio Senate budget bill would restore $717 million in education funding, but it wouldn’t be enough to overcome $1.8 billion in education funding cuts carried out in the last biennium budget. The funding increase also disproportionately favors the wealthy, with the property-poorest one-third of school districts getting 15 percent of the funding increases and the top one-third getting the vast majority. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill today.

Libertarian mayoral candidate Jim Berns didn’t hand out “free marijuana plants” at a campaign event Wednesday, instead admitting to multiple media outlets that he was misleading the public to raise awareness of his campaign and marijuana legalization platform. Berns handed out tomato plants instead, which look similar to marijuana plants.

Commentary: “JobsOhio: Something to Hide, Something to Fear?”

With 8-0 support from City Council, Mayor Mark Mallory appointed Stan Chesley to the city’s Human Relations Commission yesterday. Chesley retired from practicing law after he was disbarred in Kentucky for allegedly keeping millions of dollars that should have gone to clients involved in a lawsuit about phen-fen, a diet drug. Mallory and Chesley have worked together in the past, particularly to raise money for the city’s swimming pools.

Ohio lawmakers are considering two laws that would tighten rules about who can carry guns in schools and encourage religious education. The changes related to guns would involve local law enforcement in deciding who can carry guns, but it would also allow schools to conceal the names of who can carry a firearm and protect those individuals from liability for accidents unless there was “reckless and wanton conduct.” The changes for religious education would allow public high schools to give credit to students who take religious courses outside of school.

Ohio senators scrapped a plan that would have raised vehicle registration fees.

Ohio gas prices jumped above $4 this week.

NASA is building an intergalactic GPS.

Sleep-deprived men are apparently really bad at judging who wants to sleep with them.

 
 
by German Lopez 05.30.2013
Posted In: News, Budget, City Council at 02:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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City Budget Slashes Several Programs, Saves Public Safety Jobs

Cuts hit parks, human services, arts, outside agencies and other city programs

City Council approved an operating budget Thursday that raises taxes and cuts several city services in fiscal year 2014, but the plan avoids laying off cops and firefighters.

Democratic council members Roxanne Qualls, Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson, Pam Thomas and Wendell Young supported the budget, and Democrats P.G. Sittenfeld and Laure Quinlivan, independent Chris Smitherman and Republican Charlie Winburn voted in opposition.

As a result of the budget, 67 city employees will lose their jobs.

Human services funding, which goes toward programs that aid the city's homeless and poor, is hit particularly hard with a cut of $515,000 in the final budget plan. The reduced funding leaves about $1.1 million for human services agencies.

Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, says the latest cuts add to what's been a decade of cuts for human services funding. Originally, human services funding made up about 1.5 percent of the city's operating budget. With the latest changes, human services funding makes up about 0.3 percent of the budget.

"The additional cuts are deep and will negatively affect many lives now and in the future," Spring says. "It's important City Council work to reduce these cuts and citizens support that in ensuing months."

The budget also cuts parks funding by $1 million — about $200,000 lower than originally proposed by City Manager Milton Dohoney.

The budget further trims several city services, including the city's health department, law department and recreation department.

Arts funding and subsidies for "heritage" events, such as parades, are completely eliminated.

Funding for several outside agencies is also being reduced or eliminated: the Port Authority, the African-American Chamber of Commerce, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Center for Closing the Health Gap, the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance and the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Film Commission.

The budget is partly balanced with higher revenues. The property tax is being hiked from 4.6 mills to 5.7 mills in fiscal year 2014, or about $94 for every $100,000 in property value. Water rates will also increase by 5.5 percent starting in 2014.

The budget also invokes fees for several city services: a $75 fee for accepted Community Reinvestment Area residential tax abatement applications, a $25 late fee for late income tax filers, a $100 fee for fire plan reviews, an unspecified hazardous material cleanup fee, a 50-cent hike for admission into the Krohn Conservatory and an unspecified special events fee for city resources used for special events.

At a council meeting Thursday, Quinlivan, who voted against the budget, criticized other council members for not pursuing changes that would structurally balance the budget.

"I don't believe anybody's going to really address this problem," she said.

Quinlivan has long been an advocate for "rightsizing" the city's police and fire departments, which she says have scaled "out of control."

Seelbach defended the plan, claiming it will keep the city's books balanced while the city government waits for higher revenues from a growing local economy.

Still, the city has not passed a structurally balanced budget since 2001, which critics like Quinlivan say is irresponsible.

The public safety layoffs were avoided despite months of threats from city officials that cops and firefighters would have to be laid off if the city didn't semi-privatize its parking assets for $92 million upfront and annual payments afterward. That plan is now held up in court, and public safety layoffs were avoided anyway.

But the layoffs were avoided with steeper cuts in other areas of the budget, including reduced funding for outside agencies and a requirement of 10 furlough days for some city employees and council members. The changes also increased estimates for incoming revenues with $1 million that is supposed to be paid back to the city's tax increment financing fund.

Multiple council members blamed the budget problems on the state government, which has cut local government funding by about 50 percent during Gov. John Kasich's time in office ("Enemy of the State," issue of March 20). For Cincinnati, the cuts resulted in $21 million less for fiscal year 2014, or 60 percent of the $35 million budget gap originally estimated for the year.

 
 
by German Lopez 05.29.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Budget at 09:56 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
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City Budget Set to Pass with No Public Safety Layoffs

Final plan makes cuts elsewhere, raise taxes and fees

City Council approved a budget motion today that will avert all public safety layoffs in the fiscal year 2014 budget. But if the overall operating budget plan is approved by a majority of council tomorrow, many city services will be cut and property taxes and numerous fees will go up.

The operating budget plan, which passed with an 8-1 vote, comes after months of city officials threatening to lay off cops and firefighters if the city did not approve a plan to lease Cincinnati's parking assets to the Port Authority, which city officials previously claimed was necessary to raise funds that would help balance the operating budget for two years and fund economic development projects. But the parking plan is currently being held up in court, and the public safety layoffs are being avoided anyway.

Last week, council members Roxanne Qualls and Chris Seelbach announced a budget motion that would avoid all fire layoffs and all but 25 police layoffs. The remaining 25 police layoffs are being undone through the budget motion approved today, which increases estimates for incoming revenues with $1 million that is supposed to be paid back to the city's tax increment financing fund.

Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan did not sign onto the plan, articulating concerns that the budget maneuver will make the deficit worse in 2015 and fail to structurally balance the budget.

Even with the motion, the overall operating budget plan would make cuts elsewhere and raise fees and property taxes. If the plan is approved, about 60 city employees are expected to lose their jobs in the next couple weeks.

The cuts swept through most of the city government, hitting parks, the arts, human services, parades, administrative budgets and outside agencies, among many other areas.

The operating budget portion of the property tax will also climb from 5.7 mills in 2014 to 6.1 mills in 2015, which comes out to an extra $34 for every $100,000 in property value. The latest property tax increase comes after City Council approved a hike in 2013, pushing the property tax from 4.6 mills in 2013 to 5.7 mills in 2014.

The plan would also raise fees for several city services, including fire plan reviews and admission into the Krohn Conservatory.

Multiple council members claimed the austerity was necessary because of the state government, which has cut local government funding by about 50 percent during Gov. John Kasich's time in office ("Enemy of the State," issue of March 20).

Still, Lea Eriksen, the city's budget director, previously pointed out Cincinnati has not passed a structurally balanced budget since 2001.

City Council will vote on the overall budget plan May 30. Council members Qualls, Seelbach, Pam Thomas, Wendell Young and Yvette Simpson are expected to vote in favor of the plan, giving it enough votes to pass City Council.

 
 

 

 

 
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