Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld on Monday announced he will vote to continue the $132.8 million streetcar project.
Sittenfeld’s support for the project means the incoming City Council might not have the six votes required for an emergency clause that would immediately halt the project and make a cancellation vote insusceptible to referendum.
If streetcar supporters successfully put a cancellation vote to referendum, the project would be forced to continue until the streetcar once again appears on the ballot in November 2014. The continuation would sink more costs into the project as construction is forced to progress for nearly a year.
Sittenfeld’s announcement preceded a vote from the outgoing City Council to officially write the streetcar project into law, which means Mayor-elect John Cranley, a streetcar opponent, won’t be able to take administrative action to halt the project and instead must bring the project to a City Council vote after he and other newly elected officials take office on Sunday.
The two remaining swing votes in the incoming council — David Mann, who Cranley on Monday named as his choice for vice mayor, and Kevin Flynn — previously discussed delaying the project as council analyzes whether it should permanently cancel or continue with currently ongoing construction.
But Sittenfeld equated a delay to total cancellation after warnings from the federal government made it clear that the city could lose federal funds for the project even if it only delayed progress.
If either Flynn or Mann move to support the streetcar project, streetcar proponents would gain a five-vote majority on the nine-member council to continue the project and preclude a referendum.
Sittenfeld characterized his decision as the better of “two bad choices.”
“We can pursue a project that has never earned broad public consensus and that has yet to offer a viable and sustainable budget,” he said at a press conference, “or we can scrub the project and throw away tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money, forgo a massive federal investment and have nothing to show for the enormous effort and expense.”
To explain his decision, Sittenfeld cited concerns about how much money has been dedicated to the project at this point, including $32.8 million in sunk costs through November and a potential range of $30.6-$47.6 million in close-out costs, according to estimates from the city. Sittenfeld noted that, at the very least, half of the city’s $87.9 million share of the project will be spent even if the city pulls the plug now.
Sittenfeld also voiced concerns that pulling back from the project and effectively forfeiting $44.9 million in allocated federal funds would damage Cincinnati’s reputation with the federal government. That could hamper projects he sees as much more important, such as the $2.5 billion Brent Spence Bridge project.
“I did my part to avoid getting us into this reality, but it cannot be wished away,” Sittenfeld said.
There was one major caveat to Sittenfeld’s decision: the operating costs for the streetcar, which the city estimates at $3.4-$4.5 million a year.
Sittenfeld said the cost must not hit Cincinnati’s already-strained operating budget and instead must be paid through fares, sponsorships, private contributions and a special improvement district that would raise property taxes near the streetcar line.
A special improvement district would require a petitioning process in which property owners holding at least 60 percent of property frontage near the streetcar line would have to sign in favor of taking on higher property taxes to pay for the streetcar.
“Ultimately, that’s a decision for the citizens,” Sittenfeld said.
If the special improvement district doesn’t come to fruition, Sittenfeld cautioned that the streetcar project would be more difficult to support going forward.
Asked whether Sittenfeld thinks some of the people who voted for him will see his decision as a betrayal, he responded that his conclusion shows the “thoughtfulness and carefulness” people expect of him when it comes to taxpayer dollars, given the costs of cancellation.
There’s a catch — municipal employees only get the raises and job security if the city’s parking meters, garages and surface lots are leased to a private company for 30 years.
City Manager Milton Dohoney wants to lease the facilities for at least $40 million upfront and a share of parking profits for the next 30 years. He’d use $21 million of the upfront payment to patch a $34 million deficit in the city’s budget.
During recent budget hearings before City Council, Dohoney said extra revenue was needed to avoid the layoff of 344 city employees.
In a memo to the mayor and city council members, Dohoney outlined the agreement between the city and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Any municipal employees who will lose their jobs because of the deal would be placed in other city jobs with no loss of wages. No city employees covered by the union would be laid off between 2013 and 2016. City employees will receive a 1.5 percent cost of living raise for the 2013-2014 contract year and another 1 percent raise for the next contract year. AFSCME members will continue city vehicle maintenance work from 2013-2016.
However, if City Council doesn’t approve of the plan to privatize parking, city employees get nothing.
Public employees in Cincinnati have not been given raises in almost four years. Meanwhile, council voted last month to give Dohoney a 10 percent raise and a $35,000 bonus. Dohoney had not received a merit raise since 2007, but had collected cost of living adjustments and bonuses over the years.
Three activists associated with The Cincinnati Beacon blog have lodged a formal complaint with the city's attorneys today, alleging some City Council members “behaved secretly and in contradiction of the charter” during a recent budget dispute.
Also, other critics are researching whether the council members' action violated state law.
UPDATE: Cincinnati City Councilman Greg Harris, a pledge opponent, said Berding's description of the pledge is disingenuous. "Did Berding's anti-layoff pledge in any way make furloughs a condition? No," Harris said. "The effect of the pledge would have been to prevent the FOP from making any concessions because they wouldn't need to. The manager's only leverage is the threat of layoffs."
ORIGINAL ITEM: Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding believes a council majority is being self-defeating by refusing to sign a Berding-created pledge not to lay off police officers or firefighters in 2010 or 2011.
In a replay of the Republican kerfuffle after President Obama’s State of the Nation address last year, there will be dueling GOP responses tonight to Mayor Mark Mallory’s State of the City address.
The Hamilton County Republican Party sent a press release this afternoon announcing that Amy Murray, an ex-Cincinnati City Council member, would provide the GOP’s formal response to Mallory’s speech.
A Democrat, Mallory will give his seventh State of the City address at 6:30 p.m. It will be presented in the Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, located at 650 Walnut St., downtown.
After the press release about Murray’s response arrived at 2:55 p.m., however, current City Councilman Charlie Winburn sent a notice from his council office at 3:39 p.m. In the notice, Winburn announced he “will be available to give the Republican response” immediately after the mayor’s speech.
Winburn’s release helpfully noted that he is “the only Republican on Cincinnati City Council,” in case anyone wasn’t sure.
The concurrent responses are similar to what occurred after Obama’s speech in January 2011. At that time, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was selected to give the GOP’s official response to the address. But U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), then a rising star in the Tea Party movement, decided to give her own response.
At the time, House Speaker John Boehner (R-West Chester) called the move "a little unusual."
Bachmann’s performance was widely lambasted, as she didn’t look directly at the camera but off to the side, and appeared disconnected and halting during her remarks. Bachmann later sought the GOP’s presidential nomination but dropped out of the race early after several disappointing primary finishes.
Murray is a former Procter & Gamble employee who now owns a consulting firm that tries to attract Japanese companies to Cincinnati. The party’s release stated she would give her response immediately following Mallory’s address in the Fifth Third Bank Theater’s lobby at the Aronoff Center.
A Hyde Park resident, Murray ran unsuccessfully for Cincinnati City Council in 2009, finishing in 12th place out of 19 candidates. She then was appointed by party leaders in January 2011 to fill the remainder of Councilman Chris Monzel’s term, but lost election in her own right the following November. In that election, Murray again finished 12th, this time out of 22 candidates.
As part of CityBeat's continuing election coverage, we’ve once again sent a questionnaire to the non-incumbent Cincinnati City Council candidates to get their reactions on a broad range of issues.
Nine of the 14 non-incumbents chose to answer our questions. Others either didn’t respond or couldn’t meet the deadline.
During the next few weeks, we will print the responses from the non-incumbents to a different topic each time.
Today’s question is, “Do you believe City Council should continue taking its two-month summer break, or should it meet weekly during the summer?”