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by Andy Brownfield 09.26.2012
Posted In: City Council, Economy, Government, Mayor, News, Streetcar at 02:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Council Approves Measures Shifting $29 Million for Streetcar

Measures front Duke $15 million, add utility responsibility to move lines to city code

Cincinnati City Council on Wednesday approved a set of measures to alter funding of the $110 million streetcar project in order avoid further delaying its 2015 opening.

The three measures set up $15 million to front to Duke Energy to move utility lines out of the proposed path; changes the source of funding to repay some $25 million in bonds used to pay for the streetcar; sells $14 million in bonds for streetcar improvements; and changes the municipal code to clarify that it is the responsibility of a utility to relocate its structures.

The $15 million comes from the $37 million sale of city-owned land near the former Blue Ash Airport.

Council voted 6-3 to approve the front money, improvement bonds and bond repayment, a vote that largely mirrored a Monday Budget and Finance Committee vote. Councilman Chris Smitherman was the sole “no” vote on the ordinance to change the municipal code.

Councilmembers Cecil Thomas, Wendell Young, Roxanne Qualls, Laure Quinlivan, Chris Seelbach and Yvette Simpson voted to pass funding, while Councilmembers Smitherman, P.G. Sittenfeld and Charles Winburn voted against.

“My concern with all of these votes … in particular the Blue Ash Airport dollars, these were promises that you made to the neighborhoods and I don’t have the confidence that the legal battle against Duke Energy is going to yield a 100 percent win for the city of Cincinnati, so there’s no assurance that these dollars are going to come back,” said Councilman Chris Smitherman, one of the most vocal opponents of the streetcar. 

“I want to be clear that it’s something that I don’t support.”

The $15 million would be fronted to Duke to move its lines while the city and utility work out who is responsible for funding the move. 

Duke estimates the full cost at $18 million and argues that the lines would not have to be moved if the streetcar wasn’t being built. The city maintains that it has always been the responsibility of utilities to move or upgrade their structures — which the third measure clarified in the municipal code. If the city loses a legal battle against Duke, it will not recoup the $15 million.

The second proposal switches the source of funding for streetcar bonds from money coming into city coffers from southern downtown and the riverfront area to a 1995 fund set up to collect service payments from the Westin/Star, Hyatt and Saks. The measure wouldn't use any additional new money for the streetcar.

That downtown area wasn’t bringing in as much cash as expected but the city hopes to repay the other fund once the downtown district — which includes the Banks and the casino —  rebounds.

by German Lopez 12.18.2013
Posted In: News, Streetcar, City Council, Mayor at 10:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Streetcar Audit Finds High Costs to Cancel

Operating costs also lower than previously projected

Cincinnati would save just $7.8-$52.6 million in capital costs if it incurs tens of millions in additional expenditures to cancel the $132.8 million streetcar project, according to an audit from consulting firm KPMG released Wednesday.

By showing the potentially high costs of cancellation, the numbers could throw a lifeline to the streetcar project just one day before City Council decides whether to restart construction or permanently halt the project.

But Mayor John Cranley appears undeterred in his commitment to cancel the streetcar project. By accounting for the annual costs to operate the streetcar, Cranley estimates the city will actually save $102 million if it cancels the project.

The city already spent roughly $34 million on the project, according to the audit. Cancellation would add $16.3-$46.1 million in close-out costs, bringing the total costs of cancellation and money spent so far to $50.3-$80.1 million.

Completing the project would add $68.9 million in costs, after deducting $40.9 million in remaining federal grants, the audit found.

But the completion estimate assumes the city will need to pay $15 million in utility work — a cost that is currently being debated in court. If the city wins its case against Duke Energy, the utility company would be required to pay the $15 million and bring down the total completion costs to $53.9 million.

The audit also put the costs of operating the streetcar at $3.13-$3.54 million a year, lower than the previous $3.4-$4.5 million estimate. After revenues from fares, sponsorships and other sources, the city would need to pay $1.88-$2.44 million to operate the streetcar, according to the audit.

The reduced estimate for operating costs could become particularly important in deciding the project's fate as private contributors attempt to get the cost off the city's operating budget.

Delaying the streetcar project while KPMG conducted its audit also added $1.7-$2.8 million in costs, according to the audit. The city allocated another $250,000 to pay KPMG for its work.

The audit did not account for the potential costs of litigation if contractors and investors along the planned streetcar line sue the city to recoup costs.

City Council paused the streetcar project on Dec. 4 to obtain the cost estimates of completion, cancellation and annual operations. The full body of council will decide whether to restart the project on Thursday, before a Friday deadline set by the Federal Transit Administration for federal grants.

Read the full audit:

This post was updated at 12:59 p.m. with more information and details.

by Hannah McCartney 10.04.2013
Posted In: News, COAST, City Council, Equality, LGBT, LGBT Issues, Taxes at 11:22 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seelbach: I'll Pay $1,200 to Dismiss COAST Lawsuit

Defending suit would cost the city $30,000, says councilman

Today's an expensive day for Councilman Chris Seelbach.

That's because Seelbach is writing a check today for  $1,218.59 to the city of Cincinnati to get local hyper-conservative "watchdog" group COAST to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that Seelbach's May trip to Washington, D.C., to accept an award for instigating positive change was an unlawful expenditure of taxpayer dollars.

As a refresher, we're talking about the trip when Seelbach was one of 10 community leaders around the nation selected to receive the Harvey Milk Champion of Change award for his accomplishments in protecting the city's LGBT community — particularly through his efforts to extend equal partner health insurance to all city employees, create an LGBT liaison in the city's fire and police departments and requiring anyone accepting city funding to follow a non-discrimination policy a national recognition of championing Cincinnati's progression toward social justice in the past few years.

In an email from his campaign, he says that the city's law department wants to move forward with the lawsuit because the allegations are so frivolous, but Seelbach decided to just use his own personal money to prevent the city from having to spend close to $30,000 of the same taxpayer money COAST is complaining about to prove that they're wrong.

On Aug. 28, Chris Finney, chief crusader at COAST, sent a letter to the office of the city solicitor alleging that the city had committed a "misapplication of corporate funds" by sponsoring Chris Seelbach's May trip to Washington, D.C., complaining that Seelbach and his staffers "upgraded" their hotel rooms.

Curp says that the rooms weren't only never upgraded — Seelbach and his staffers shared rooms — but that the councilman didn't even request reimbursement for several other eligible expense, like parking, meals and taxi fares — and flew out of Louisville, Ky., to take advantage of cheaper airfare.

In City Solicitor John Curp's five-page response to Finney, he refutes every claim made by COAST and ends the letter by citing an Ohio Supreme Court case that effectively ruled that private citizens (like Chris Finney and all the other COASTers) constantly contesting official acts and expenditures doesn't benefit the city and should only be allowed when it could cause serious public injury if ignored. Here's Curp's full response:

Solicitor Response - Champion of Change by chrisseelbach1

In Seelbach's campaign email, he chocks the lawsuit up to another one of COAST's attacks to continue their thinly veiled bigotry-fueled crusade against Seelbach and Cincinnati's LGBT community as a whole. "You can bet they never would have asked a City Councilmember to pay for a trip to the White House to celebrate Cincinnati if it weren't for the connection to Harvey Milk and the LGBT community."

by 12.10.2010

More on Berding/COAST Battle

Although no one seems to want to comment directly on the situation, more details are emerging about the bitter political dispute between Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding and several anti-streetcar groups.

Read More

by 02.25.2010
Posted In: Community, City Council, Neighborhoods at 03:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Berding's Proposal Prompts Boycott Call

A long-simmering dispute about how much oversight should be imposed on a contractor that doles out city money for neighborhood projects is heating up again.

Just when it looked like Cincinnati officials were about to restore a contract to Invest In Neighborhoods Inc. (IIN) to manage the city’s Neighborhood Support Program (NSP), a stumbling block has occurred.

Read More

by Hannah McCartney 09.16.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Homelessness at 02:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

City Committee Puts Commons at Alaska Project on Hold

Independent mediator will work with supporters and opposition

The controversial proposed supportive housing facility for Alaska Avenue in Avondale was the main subject of a heated session of City Council's Budget and Finance Committee today, which resulted in the committee's decision to put the project on hold for two weeks. The committee also announced its intent to allocate $5,000 for an independent mediator, which the city administration will be responsible for finding.

A slew of Avondale community members spoke out in opposition of the project, while representatives from National Church Residences (NCR), Josh Spring of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and Kevin Finn of Strategies to End Homelessness were some of those who publicly expressed support for the project. Many in opposition articulated concern that predominantly poor black neighborhoods such as Avondale are "targeted" for low-income housing projects like these, while supporters insist a spread of misinformation is largely responsible for the tension and that the complex is a necessary step in moving forward with the city's 2008 Homeless to Homes Plan, which explicitly cited NCR as the well-regarded nonprofit developer and manager of supportive housing facilities commissioned to bring a permanent supportive housing facility to the city. 

The proposed project, coined Commons at Alaska, would be a 99-unit facility providing residency and supportive services to the area homeless population, particularly those with with severe mental health issues, physical disabilities and histories of alcohol and substance abuse. The project, which gained City Council's official support in February, has recently come under scrutiny from community group Avondale 29, Alaska Avenue residents and other community stakeholders who are fervently expressing public distaste for the facility, which they worry will threaten the safety and revitalization efforts in the neighborhood. CityBeat covered the controversy here.

Councilman Smitherman, who originally voted against Council's support for the project in February, vocally expressed his opposition, and later, Councilman Winburn rescinded his support for the project.

"It appears that maximum citizen participation did not happen... you are having hundreds of people who are not ready yet for this project. So something went wrong somewhere," he said. 

Winburn was also the one to announce the motion that asked council to suspend the project for two weeks.

Both sides are expected to once again go in front of the Budget & Finance Committee on a Sept. 30 meeting

by 12.20.2010

Note to City Council: Just Say No

Two far-reaching ideas by Cincinnati's fly-by-the-seats-of-their-pants City Council is being sharply criticized by people with extensive experience in policing issues.

As City Council acts surprised about a $58 million deficit that's loomed on the horizon for months, an amount that's only fluctuated slightly due to changing revenues, members last week proposed abolishing the Cincinnati Police Department's patrol bureau and contracting those services to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

Read More

by German Lopez 05.20.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, LGBT Issues at 06:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seelbach Wins White House's Champion of Change Award

Award acknowledges 10 leaders committed to equality, public service

The White House announced today that Councilman Chris Seelbach has won the Harvey Milk Champion of Change award, which recognizes 10 community leaders around the nation each year for a commitment to equality and public service.

Seelbach, Cincinnati's first openly gay council member, won the award after he was nominated by the the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). He will officially receive the award at a ceremony at the White House on Wednesday.

"I am humbled and proud to be recognized by the White House for my efforts on City Council and extremely grateful to the people of Cincinnati for giving me the opportunity to effect positive change in our community. In order to create a city where more people want to live, work and raise a family, we must continue fighting to make sure all people feel welcomed, valued and respected," Seelbach said in a statement.

The award recognizes Seelbach's accomplishments, but it also shows Cincinnati's progress in the past few years.

Seelbach led efforts to extend health benefits to all city employees, including gay couples, and require anyone accepting city funds or subsidies to agree to Cincinnati's non-discrimination policies.

During Seelbach's time in office, the city's police and fire departments created a LGBT liaison.

Most recently, Seelbach co-sponsored a motion that will help avert police and fire layoffs in the fiscal year 2014 budget plan. He also spearheaded "responsible bidder" changes that require bidders on most Metropolitan Sewer District projects to offer apprenticeship programs.

The Harvey Milk Champion of Change award is named after Harvey Milk, who became California's first openly gay elected official when he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was assassinated on Nov. 10, 1978 — only 10 months after he was sworn into office.

by German Lopez 09.20.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Budget at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)
city hall

City Administration Defends Car Allowances

Restorations would subsidize car use for mayor, city manager, other directors

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.

“Im more concerned with the garbage worker whos 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 havent received a raise in years would be thrilled to split $22,000, even if the sum doesnt 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 mayors 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.

by Bill Sloat 11.07.2012
Posted In: City Council, Health care at 04:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
pat fischer

Court Rules City Can Reduce Retiree Healthcare Benefits

City defeats class-action aimed at restoring cuts to pension systems

A state appeals court today rejected a lawsuit filed by city of Cincinnati retirees who claimed promised healthcare benefits were illegally reduced in 2010. Before the cuts, retirees did not have to pay-out-of-pocket expenses and deductions for prescriptions and medical care. The city shifted some costs of the pension health package to the ex-workers under an ordinance enacted to shore up its pension plan, which is still under financial stress. The appeals court said it saw no records guaranteeing ex-city employees set benefits at the time they retired.

The 1st Ohio District Court of Appeals released its decision this morning, just a few hours after one of the three judges who ruled against the retirees was reelected. Judge Pat Fischer, a Republican, was on the ballot Tuesday — and now there is no way to know whether the ruling could have had any adverse impact on his reelection bid.

The retirees, a group that included former City Clerk Sandy Sherman, contended their benefits could be increased, but that they were not subject to reduction. The appeals court scuttled the argument:

“At issue in this case is an ordinance enacted by the city council in 2009. The ordinance amended sections of the code pertaining to the retirement system. … After the 2009 ordinance, the plaintiff-appellants would have a deductible to $200 and out-of-pocket caps for healthcare and prescriptions of $2,000. The ordinance provided that the revisions to the retirement system would become effective on January 1, 2010.”

The appeals court said hospital and medical benefits were in addition to retirement pension payments and were not subject to vesting, which meant they could be changed by ordinance.

“The distinction between the retirement allowances and the healthcare benefits has been maintained throughout the existence of the retirement system. The distinction is significant,” the appeals court ruled.

The case could still be taken to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The following table shows the fund's assets, and the funding ratio, through 2010: