Supporters of the $133 million streetcar project on Thursday night packed Mercantile Library and Fountain Square to start a two-week campaign that seeks to prevent the incoming mayor and City Council from canceling the ongoing project.
Turnout was particularly strong as supporters reached the 200-person capacity at Mercantile Library before the event started. Another 200 watched the event from the Jumbotron screen at Fountain Square, according to the event's organizers.
In attendance were several Over-the-Rhine business owners and residents; council members P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young; and several supporters of the project from around the city.
The goal of the event was to organize supporters and begin a lobbying campaign to convince the three perceived swing votes in the incoming council — Sittenfeld, David Mann and Kevin Flynn — to support continuing the project. All three have spoken against the streetcar in the past, but they told CityBeat they want to fully account for the project's cancellation costs, completion costs and potential return on investment before making a final decision.
Speakers urged supporters to contact the nine newly elected council members and raise awareness about the streetcar's benefits before Mayor-elect John Cranley, who opposes the streetcar project, and the new City Council take office in December.
Ryan Messer, a lead organizer of the effort to save the streetcar, spoke about the advantages of the streetcar project for much of the event. "This is a good economic tool that helps all of Cincinnati," he repeatedly stated.
Supporters have some empirical evidence to base their claims on. A 2007 study from consulting firm HDR found the streetcar project would generate a 2.7-to-1 return on investment over 35 years. The HDR study was later evaluated and supported by the University of Cincinnati.
Project executive John Deatrick acknowledges the 2007 study is now outdated and the city is working on updating the numbers. But he says the streetcar project is supposed to be viewed as an economic development vehicle, not just another transit option.
Supporters also warned of the potential costs of canceling the streetcar project. Hours before the gathering, Mayor Mark Mallory released a letter from the Federal Transit Administration that explicitly stated the city would lose nearly $41 million in federal grant dollars if the project were canceled, and another $4 million would be placed in the hands of Gov. John Kasich to do as he sees fit.
City spokesperson Meg Olberding previously told CityBeat that the city already spent about $2 million of the federal funds. If the project were canceled, she says the money would have to be repaid through the operating budget that funds police, firefighters and human services instead of the capital budget currently financing the streetcar project.
The operating budget has been structurally imbalanced since 2001, so adding millions in costs to it could force the city to cut services or raise taxes.
The FTA letter might already be playing an influence for at least one of the swing votes on City Council. On the elevator ride up to Mercantile Library, Sittenfeld told Seelbach and CityBeat, "I will say that today's news is a big gain in the pro-streetcar column."
Another threat for the city is potential litigation from contractors, subcontractors, taxpayers and Over-the-Rhine residents and businesses who invested in the project or along the streetcar line with the expectation that the project would be completed.
Litigation costs would also come out of the operating budget, according to Olberding.
"As a trial lawyer, this is actually appealing," said Democratic attorney Don Mooney. "For the city, not so much."
Supporters also outlined the potential damage that pulling from the project could do to the city's image, given that developers, businesses and the federal government have put their support and dollars toward the streetcar.
"Is Cincinnati that city that will dine you and wine you and leave you alone at the altar?" Young asked.
But if the lobbying effort, cancellation costs and threat of litigation aren't enough, supporters also presented one more option to save the streetcar: a ballot initiative. Mayor-elect John Cranley on Thursday told The Cincinnati Enquirer that he would be open to allowing some sort of streetcar referendum on the ballot.
The ultimate goal for supporters of the streetcar, beyond ensuring sustainable growth in the urban core, is to connect all of Cincinnati through a vast transit network, much like the streetcar lines that ran through Cincinnati before the city government dismantled the old system in the 1950s.
That provides little assurance to opponents of the streetcar project. Cranley and at least three hard-liners in the incoming City Council — Amy Murray, Charlie Winburn and Christopher Smitherman — claim the project is too expensive and the wrong priority for Cincinnati. Discussing more phases makes the project appear even costlier to opponents who are already concerned with costs.
In its comprehensive plan for 2040, the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments put the cost of various extensions — to the University of Cincinnati and surrounding hospitals, the Cincinnati Zoo, the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Broadway Commons area near the Horseshoe Casino — at more than $191 million, or $58 million more than the estimated cost for the current phase.
But if Cincinnati never completes the first phase of the streetcar project, supporters say it could be decades before other light rail options are considered.
Panelists including the parents of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin talked about reconciliation and turning personal suffering into power at the National and Racial Healing Town Hall at the Duke Energy Convention Center on Wednesday during the Children’s Defense Fund National Conference.
Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, broke down in tears as he told the story of how his son saved his life by dragging him out of their condo and calling 911 after Tracy had been badly burned in a grease fire.
“My child is my hero,” Tracy Martin said. “He saved my life. Not to be there to save his is troublesome to me.”
Trayvon Martin was shot and killed on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla. by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
Trayvon, who was black, was unarmed and shot by the white and Hispanic Zimmerman after Zimmerman pursued him in defiance of a request by a police dispatcher. Zimmerman claims the shooting was in self-defense.
Zimmerman is out on $1 million bail while awaiting trial on a charge of second degree murder.
“Nothing anyone can do will bring Trayvon back,” Tracy Martin said. “You have to take that negative and turn it into a positive. We chose to keep our son's name alive and not let his death be in vain.”
The town hall-style meeting was kicked off by poet and author Maya Angelou. She urged the hundreds of people in attendance, mostly young and black, to demand justice for Trayvon — referring to Zimmerman as “the brute” — but “that means we don’t become poisoned by hate.”
Angelou wasn’t the only one who urged against hate.
Black historian and civil rights activist Vincent Harding, who celebrated his 81st birthday on Wednesday, issued a challenge to the youth in attendance:
“Are you ready to fight for the healing of George Zimmerman and all the George Zimmermans of America? Are you up to that?” he asked.
“This country has no chance unless they are healed.”
The panel was made up of social activists, many of whom had lost friends and family to violence or bigotry, but whose pain prompted activism instead of retaliation — panelists such as The Rev. Ronald and Kim Odom, who lost a son to gun violence but volunteer in intervention and outreach programs; Clemmie Greenlee, a former prostitute and gang member who formed a peacemaking organization to work with gang members after her son was killed; and Ndume Olatushani, a former prisoner who was released in June after 19 years on death row after being falsely convicted of murdering a Tennessee shopkeeper.
The younger members of the audience were encouraged to ask questions after the panel presentation. Teenagers and young adults from as far as Tennessee, North Carolina and Minnesota asked questions about dismantling the system of racial oppression, overcoming odds stacked against young minorities and having society see past an old felony conviction.
The panelists all tried to offer encouragement, while urging the younger generation to continue to try to fight to make things better.
“When you look at the odds, it’s so horrific for a young minority American, you say ‘why even try, why even bother?’ ” said Benjamin Crump, a civil rights attorney who is representing Trayvon’s mother Sabryna Fulton. “But the reason you try and you bother, there is so many examples where we beat the odds every day and nobody even know about it or talked about it.”
“It goes back to you and saying, ‘I am going to make something of myself. I don’t care about the statistics, I don’t care about the odds.’ … You say, ‘well, if it’s one out of a million, I’m going to be that one.’”
Mitt Romney was criticized for wanting to “kill Big Bird” due to his proposed cuts to publicly funded media, and now City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. could face similar criticism. In his 2013 budget proposal, Dohoney suggested eliminating $300,000 in support to Media Bridges, an organization that provides public access TV and radio stations in Cincinnati.
Tom Bishop, executive director of Media Bridges, called the cuts a “meteor” to his organization’s budget. He described dire circumstances in which Ohio originally cut funding to Media Bridges in June 2011, leaving the organization with $198,000 from remaining money in the state fund and $300,000 from Cincinnati’s general fund. The state fund was provided by Time Warner Cable, and lobbying from the cable company is what eventually led to the fund’s elimination. The end of the Time Warner fund cut Media Bridges’ budget by one-third, forcing the organization to change facilities to make ends meet with less space.
With the city manager proposing to cut the city’s $300,000 in funding, Media Bridges is essentially losing $498,000 in 2013. Bishop says that’s about 85 percent of the organization’s budget — a financial gap that would be practically impossible to overcome. “If it’s a complete cut, we’re looking at liquidation,” says Bishop.
When it was notified of the changes a few months ago, Media Bridges gave an alternative plan to the mayor’s office that keeps $300,000 in funding every year after a six-month transition period. But even that plan isn’t ideal, according to Bishop. It would force Media Bridges to cut four staff members, become more dependent on automation and charge $200 a year for memberships with a sliding scale for low-income members.
Media Bridges will be reaching out to the public, mayor and
council members in the coming weeks to draw support in fighting the cuts.
At the government meetings, Bishop will make the plea that public access outlets are important for low-income families. He says it’s true that the Internet and cable television have expanded media options for the public, but, according to the 2010 Greater Cincinnati Survey, more than 40 percent of people in Cincinnati don’t have access to broadband. That’s a large amount of the population that will be left without a way to easily speak out in media if Media Bridges funding is dissolved.
In a world of saturated media, Bishop rhetorically asked why four TV channels that do a public service would need to be targeted: “Does it seem so ridiculous that the people should have a tiny bit of that bandwidth so that they can communicate with the community, share cultural events, share what’s going on in the community and participate politically?”
He added the organization also provides educational access, which allows institutions like the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Public Schools and various private schools to reach out to the community.
Media Bridges also sees the cuts as a bit unfair relative to other budget items. Bishop acknowledges “fiscal times are hard,” but he pointed out CitiCable, which broadcasts City Council meetings and other educational services, is getting more than $750,000 in the proposed budget to run one TV channel, while Media Bridges isn't getting $300,000 to run four TV channels and a radio station. He praised CitiCable — “Those guys do a great job over there; they provide a great service” — but he also says the disproportionate cuts are “just not right.”
The cuts to Media Bridges are some of many adjustments in the budget proposal by Dohoney. To balance Cincinnati’s estimated $34 million deficit, Dohoney suggested pursuing privatizing parking services and other cuts, including the elimination of the Cincinnati Police Department’s mounted patrol unit and a $610,770 reduction to human services funding.
Update (Nov. 30, 3:45 p.m.): Meg Olberding, spokesperson for the city manager's office, called back CityBeat after this story was published. She explained Media Bridges was a target for cuts for two reasons: The program was ranked low in importance in public feedback gathered during the priority-driven budget process, and Media Bridges isn't seen as a core city service.
Olberding also said that while some funding does flow through the city to CitiCable, that money has always come from franchise fees from Cincinnati Bell and Time Warner. In the case of Media Bridges, the city was not funding the program until it picked up the tab in 2011. Until that point, Media Bridges was funded through the now-gone Time Warner fund. Only after funding was lost did the city government provide a “one-year reprieve” in the general fund to keep Media Bridges afloat, according to Olberding.
Mayor Mark Mallory is working to thwart an effort by Cincinnati’s own U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) to prevent federal funding from being used to construct a streetcar in the city. Chabot offered an amendment on June 27 to the 2013 Transportation and Housing Urban Development spending bill that would bar federal transportation money from being used to design, construct or operate a “fixed guideway” project in Cincinnati.
Mallory called Chabot’s move “nothing but a political stunt.” Mallory today said in a press release that he is reaching out to legislative leaders in both the U.S. House and Senate to remove the amendment. Mallory said he’s also making calls to the White House.
“Steve Chabot seems determined to stop progress in Cincinnati,” Mallory said in the release. “He seems determined to make sure that other parts of the country thrive, while Cincinnati is left in the past. That is not the kind of leadership that we need in Washington, D.C..”
The city has procured a $25 million federal Urban Circulator Grant. That funding would not be jeopardized, as the Chabot amendment would only apply to federal funding for fiscal year 2013.
The U.S. House approved the amendment on a voice vote. To become law, it would have to be passed by the Senate and signed by the president.
“Far from a necessity, the Cincinnati streetcar is a luxury project that our nation and our region simply cannot afford,” Chabot said during testimony on the House floor.
Some opponents of the amendment worry that it could prevent funding for other transportation as well.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, fixed guideway refers to any transit service that uses exclusive or controlled rights-of-way. That means the ban on federal funding to those modes of transportation could apply to ferryboats, designated bus or carpool lanes and aerial tramways in addition to streetcars.
Chabot’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. (Andy Brownfield)
A gay couple living in Ohio has filed a lawsuit today against the state of Ohio for failing to recognize their Maryland-certified same-sex marriage, which they claim is discriminatory because the state is required to recognize any certified heterosexual marriage from another state as valid.
Jim Obergefell and John Arthur, who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive and disabling neurological disease that causes muscles to rapidly deteriorate, traveled to Maryland last week to officially tie the knot after remaining as partners for 20 years, reports Cincinnati.com. The trip reportedly cost nearly $13,000 for a chartered, medically-equipped plane, all of which was sourced by donations from friends and family.
Arthur, 47, is a bed-ridden hospice patient and was diagnosed with ALS in 2011.
Attorney Al Gerhardstein, who is representing Arthur and Obergefell, cites the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection clause, noting that the Supreme Court's historic overturn of DOMA has stripped states of the right to discriminate against couples who seek same-sex marriages.
"John and James were validly married in Maryland. If they were an opposite sex couple, Ohio would recognize their marriage. Being a same-sex couple is no longer a good enough reason to deny them equal rights.”
As an example, he explains that should two first cousins fall in love in the state of Ohio, they can't be wed in Ohio and have their union recognized; however, should they travel to Georgia, where marrying your first cousin is legal, they could come back to Ohio and have a recognizable union under state law, enjoying the same benefits as any other heterosexual married couple in Ohio. The same rules would follow for other stipulations prohibited under Ohio law, such as getting married underage in another state where the union would be legal.
Defense attorneys Terry Nester and Bridget Koontz were not available for comment. CityBeat will update this story with any changes.
Gerhardstein told CityBeat that the plaintiffs will go before U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black on Monday, July 22, to ask for an expedited ruling in light of Arthur's rapidly deteriorating condition.
"Had the Supreme Court made this decision one year ago, this would have been as simple as us taking a trip because I could still walk. It's the progression for me of the ALS, it's...it's just compounded everything," he told Cincinnati.com camera crews earlier this week.
A Clifton community group is contacting local and state officials to get help with the effort to reopen Keller's IGA grocery store in the Gaslight District.
The store, located on Ludlow Avenue in the heart of the neighborhood's business district, abruptly closed Jan. 6, shocking many residents and other longtime customers.
State Sen. Bill Seitz says he’s working on a bill that would cap how much utilities can spend on energy efficiency programs and eliminate requirements for in-state wind and solar power. But the proposal isn’t completely unique to Ohio, which is just one of many states in which national conservative groups are working to weaken state energy standards.
Seitz, a Republican from Cincinnati, told Gongwer
that his bill will keep requirements for utilities to provide 25
percent of their electricity from alternative sources and reduce
customers’ consumption by 22 percent by 2025.
But the other measures will likely weaken renewable energy and efficiency standards set by Ohio’s Clean Energy Law in 2008.
The bill is presumably the result of Seitz’s review of Ohio’s energy rules, which the state senator announced earlier in the year.
FirstEnergy, an Akron-based utility company, says the review is necessary because the regulations impose too many costs. But there’s another major group involved: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Seitz is on the board of directors of ALEC,
a conservative group that’s gone from state to state to push legislation
that typically favors corporate interests.
Some state officials, including Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder, reportedly attended ALEC’s 40th annual meeting in Chicago Aug. 7-9.
Just a couple weeks after that meeting, Seitz announced he still intends to rework Ohio’s energy standards.
ALEC previously teamed up with the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that gets much of its funding from oil companies, to write the standard for legislation that pulls back state energy rules. Many of the effort’s backers, particularly at the Heartland Institute, deny man-made global warming, even though scientists are 95 percent certain climate change is influenced by human actions.
ALEC’s efforts have so far failed in every state in which legislation has been proposed, as shown in this map from ThinkProgress:
But Ohio may be the first state to buck that trend if Seitz insists on pushing his review.
A report from advocacy group Environment Ohio found the current energy standards, which require Ohio utility companies get 12.5 percent of their energy needs from renewable sources, have successfully spurred clean
energy projects all around the state, particularly in Cincinnati.
One local example: The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in 2011 installed solar panels in its parking lot that will generate enough electricity to meet 20 percent of the zoo’s electricity needs and reduce pollution associated with global warming by 1,775 tons annually, according to the report.
But the standards are written in a way that favors in-state sources, which was supposed to ensure that at least half of the renewable energy development spurred by the Clean Energy Law happened in Ohio. A June 2013 ruling from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals indicated that the in-state preference is an unconstitutional violation of the Commerce Clause.
Seitz will introduce his bill in the next two weeks.
Following county commissioner’s Feb. 12 meeting, the dispute between Cincinnati and Hamilton County over contracting rules for Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) projects appears to be heading to court.
The court battle comes after the county dismissed multiple concessions from the city and put MSD’s revamp of the local sewer system on hold in protest of the city’s rules. With a federal mandate looming, both sides agree a resolution is needed soon to avoid costly fines from the federal government.
For many across the city and county, the conflict is understandably confusing. The debate has often been mired down by biased media reports and political talking points that obfuscate the issue. Jargon referencing “responsible bidder,” “local hire,” “local preference,” unions, apprenticeship programs, a pre-apprenticeship fund and contractors make it even more difficult to grasp what is going on.
Cutting through the politics, here is what the responsible bidder rules actually do and why the city and county seem incapable of compromise.
What is responsible bidder?
It’s a city ordinance that essentially forces MSD contractors to adopt job training measures known as apprenticeship programs and pay for a pre-apprenticeship fund. By requiring the training options, the city hopes workers will be able to improve their skills and successfully transition to other jobs once their MSD work is finished.
Apprenticeship programs take workers through extensive on-the-job and classroom-based training in which they can hone their skills in a specific craft, such as electrical or plumbing work. Because workers get paid for their work while participating in an apprenticeship, the programs are typically characterized as an “earn-while-you-learn” model.
The pre-apprenticeship fund will put money toward programs that will teach newcomers basic skills, such as math and reading, so they can eventually move up to an apprenticeship program.
The rules don’t apply to every MSD contractor. Contracts worth less than $400,000, which make up roughly half of MSD’s sewer revamp, are exempted.
What about local hire and local preference?
Those are ordinances separate from responsible bidder that give preference to Cincinnati-based businesses. They try to keep MSD contracts within local companies.
What’s the conflict about?
The conflict is between Cincinnati and Hamilton County, which jointly run MSD. The Democrat-controlled city supports the rules, while the Republican-controlled county opposes them.
The city and county also dispute which governing body can set policy for MSD. Under a 1968 agreement, the county owns and funds MSD, and the city operates and maintains it. City Council argues the agreement allows the city to set policy for MSD, but the county disagrees. Both sides acknowledge the set-up is far from ideal.
So, did the city’s rules halt MSD projects?
No. Nothing in the city’s ordinances forces MSD projects to stop. County commissioners singlehandedly halted MSD projects in protest of the city’s rules. If it were up to the city, work would continue today.
Why are these projects so important?
By federal decree, the city needs to revamp the sewer system to bring it up to environmentally safe standards. The project will cost $3.2 billion over 15-20 years, making it one of the most expensive in the city’s history.
If the city and county don’t carry on with the revamp soon, the federal government will begin issuing fines. By some guesses, the fines could begin rolling in by the end of the year.
Why does a majority of City Council support responsible bidder?
Councilman Chris Seelbach, the Democrat who championed the rules, says they will boost local employment and create more job training options for the city’s struggling workforce.
Other Democrats on council agree, although some, like Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, believe the ordinance is “imperfect.”
Does responsible bidder benefit workers?
Some research suggests it would.
The left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) in a December report argued apprenticeship programs provide an opportunity to revitalize the U.S. workforce.
“By 2020, America is projected to experience a shortage of 3 million workers with associate’s degrees or higher and 5 million workers with technical certificates and credentials,” the report claimed. “Compounding our inadequate workforce development system, research shows that employers are now spending less on training than they have in the past. At the same time, industry surveys show that a lack of qualified workers is a top concern for many employers.”
Citing a 2012 study from Mathematica Policy Research, CAP estimated apprenticeship programs alone can boost a worker’s lifetime earnings and benefits by more than $300,000. Over 36 years of employment, that’s an average gain of nearly $8,400 a year.
Why do county commissioners oppose the rules?
In terms of policy, county commissioners say the responsible bidder rules favor unions and burden businesses.
On a legal basis, the county argues the city’s responsible bidder rules conflict with state law and the local hire and preference rules enforce unconstitutional geographic preferences.
Does responsible bidder actually favor unions?
Since unions tend to offer better and more apprenticeship programs, yes.
But the rules don’t exclude non-union businesses from participating. For example, Ohio Valley Associated Builders and Contractors maintains some non-union apprenticeship programs that would qualify under the law.
Still, most of the union favoritism debate centered around a regulation the city actually offered to give up. Specifically, under current rules employers are only eligible to contract with MSD if they have apprenticeship programs that have graduated at least one person a year for the past five years. In October, Seelbach offered to strip the mandate and replace it with an incentive program. The county seemed unmoved by the proposal.
What about businesses? Does responsible bidder burden them?
By requiring businesses to adopt apprenticeship programs and put 10 cents for each hour of labor into a pre-apprenticeship fund, the law certainly places more regulations on businesses. Whether the requirements are a burden is subjective.
John Morris, president of the Ohio Valley Associated Builders and Contractors and an opponent of the law, told CityBeat the pre-apprenticeship fund’s requirement will increase business costs by $2-3 million over 15-20 years.
Citing MSD estimates for the cost of labor, Rob Richardson, regional manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said the fund will cost businesses $1.5 million.
Even if someone accepts Morris’ estimate, the requirement adds up to at most 0.1 percent of the $3.2 billion project.
More broadly, some supporters of the city’s rules question whether placing a burden on businesses is innately a bad thing. The basic point of government regulations is to make the economy and businesses work better for the public. In that sense, regulations are always going to burden businesses to some extent.
For example, financial regulations burden big banks and financial institutions. But many Americans agree the regulations are necessary to avoid another financial crisis like the one that plunged the country into the Great Recession.
Still, critics argue the extra regulations would increase the cost of business, and the impact could ultimately be felt by MSD ratepayers.
Why don’t the city and county just compromise?
They kind of tried, but it seems the philosophical split between Hamilton County Republicans and Cincinnati Democrats is too strong to reach a substantial agreement.
The city, for example, has offered multiple concessions to the county. In May, City Council modified the law to ease some requirements and add an exemption for contracts worth less than $400,000, which covers half of the contracts involved in MSD’s sewer revamp. In October, Seelbach offered to replace a strict mandate with a looser incentive program. Seelbach also told CityBeat on Feb. 6 that he would consider raising the contract exemption from $400,000 to $750,000.
In return, the county rejected the concessions and instead offered to establish aspirational inclusion goals and some funding for local job training programs — as long as the city repealed its rules altogether.
Which side would win the court battle?
It’s hard to say. Both sides — and their lawyers — seem pretty confident about their legal standing.
So what’s next?
At the current rate, it looks like the city and county are heading to court. Whether the process involves a full-on legal battle or mediation between the city and county’s lawyers remains uncertain, but it’s clear something will eventually have to give.
This blog post will be regularly updated as the situation develops.