All right. It's morning, it's nasty out, and it's only Wednesday. Let's do this news thing because we've all already uploaded five pics of those ominous clouds to Instagram and doing actual work is hard.
A bill the Ohio House took up yesterday would make it illegal for insurance to cover abortions. House Bill 351, sponsored by State Rep. John Becker, a Republican representing Cincinnati’s suburbs, would ban any insurance coverage for abortion procedures, even in cases of rape or incest. The bill would also keep public employees or those receiving Medicaid from using their insurance to purchase certain kinds of birth control that keep fertilized eggs from maturing, which Becker says is tantamount to abortion.
“This is just my personal view,” Becker said of that scientifically dubious claim. “I’m not a medical doctor.” Just going to leave that quote right there for you to chew on.
• More questions are popping up about Cincinnati’s 2015 operating budget, which City Council is set to pass today. Concerns have emerged about $350,000 in blight removal funds directed last-minute Monday to Bond Hill’s Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation, The Enquirer reports. That’s a third of the money budgeted by the city for such work.
One possible way the corporation might use that money is by purchasing Integrity Hall, a banquet hall currently owned by Steve Reece. Reece has strong ties to Cranley, having done work for his mayoral campaign. His nonprofit, Operation Step-Up, also received a $3,700 donation from the campaign. In addition, Reece’s daughter, State Rep. Alicia Reece, endorsed Cranley’s campaign.
The connections between Reece and Cranley have raised questions from some council members. Councilman Chris Seelbach wondered Monday whether the money represents a “pet project.” Cranley says he has nothing to do with the allocation to Bond Hill and denies discussing the sale of Integrity Hall with Reece. Vice Mayor David Mann says there have been no decisions about what the money would be spent on. Reece hopes to sell his building to Bond Hill’s redevelopment corporation for around $335,000.
• Streetcar advocacy group Believe in Cincinnati met last night in Clifton to talk about expanding the streetcar into neighborhoods beyond OTR. About 80 people showed up at the meeting, which focused on uptown, other neighborhoods like Hyde Park and even interest in the streetcar across the river in Northern Kentucky. Ryan Messer, an organizer of the group, said Believe in Cincinnati wants to advocate for all kinds of transit and hopes to expand awareness and get people talking about the issue throughout the region.
Pete Witte, an advocate for transit going to the West Side, spoke about his efforts “in the lion’s den,” as Messer called the city’s western suburbs. Though transit expansion hasn’t been a popular there, Witte says there are a growing number of people there who want something like light rail or the streetcar as an option in the future.
Councilman Kevin Flynn also spoke, reminding the crowd about the realities of funding for streetcar expansion — that basically, the city has no money to pay for it now and that it will take a great amount of political will and support for the current phase of the project to make future expansions a reality.
• A University of Cincinnati professor is leading a group of students in drone research and development. So far, the group has made five of the hovering, eye-in-the-sky devices, including one with eight arms called Octorotor. The university is hooking up with the West Virginia Division of Forestry this fall to offer a co-op for students looking to push the boundaries of what drones can do while fighting forest fires. Next up, I hope: a drone that delivers pizza to my window at the CityBeat offices when it's storming and I don't want to leave the building.
• Archeologists in China have found the world’s oldest pants, because, you know, that’s what science does. The pants look suspiciously like something you might grab from an Urban Outfitters, with straight legs and a wide crotch that seem to make them direct ancestor of those dreadful drop-crotch skinny jeans Justin Bieber has taken to wearing. On the plus side, these things lasted 3,000 years. Meanwhile I can’t find a pair of jeans that doesn’t start fading and fraying after six months. They just don't make em like they used to, etc.
City council continued to tinker with the budget yesterday, shifting around a few items in an edge of your seat, five-plus hour thrill ride that was as riveting for me to watch as it would be for you to read about. Instead of giving you the play by play, though, because it’s probably too early for that much excitement, I’ll just hit you with the high points.
Under the changes approved yesterday, Cincinnati Works will get $250,000 for a jobs program on which Cranley campaigned, Bond Hilll will get $350,000 for blight removal and the Camp Washington pool will stay open.
Council passed the changes 6-3, with members Kevin Flynn, Chris Seelbach, and Yvette Simpson voting against due to some lingering concerns about the city’s pension fund.
Other issues still looming include a water rate hike and questions about $4 million the city owes eight neighborhoods. On that last issue, Councilman Charlie Winburn suggested the sale of the Blue Ash Airport could cover the borrowed money. Council may need to decide quickly, because a lawsuit hits court today over the city’s use of the money.
There is a public hearing tonight on the budget in Westwood, so you can still catch some of the action. Let’s get fiscal! Council is expected to take a final vote on the package tomorrow at its weekly meeting, though it has until June 30 to pass the budget.
The state could throw Cincinnati half a million dollars to help the city with hosting the 2015 Major League Baseball All Star Game. That money from taxpayers could be used for extra police, enhanced transit options and general beautification, according to The Enquirer. Though the money hasn’t been allocated yet, Gov. John Kasich has indicated he’s looking for ways to make it happen.
Elsewhere, Seattle just raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, among the highest in the country. The city has yet to receive a predicted smiting from the economics gods, though no doubt it will soon turn into a hellish wasteland where fast food workers can actually afford to buy things like food and shelter without government assistance.
When even the National Rifle Association says your preoccupation with guns is “weird,” you know you’re in Texas. Open carry advocacy groups in the Lone Star state have gotten in hot water recently for toting their assault rifles into Chili’s and other fine dining establishments. AR15s and appletinis? What could go wrong?
Got news? Want to talk? Email nswartsell@citybeat or hit me on Twitter-- @nswartsell
Cincinnati is one step closer to joining nine other Ohio cities that have established domestic partner registries, which would open up more possibilities for equal employee benefits for same-sex couples.
A measure introduced by City Councilman Chris Seelbach to have the city set up the registry passed unanimously through the council’s Human Services Committee today. Mayor John Cranley and a majority of council have expressed support for the measure, and it seems likely to come up for a vote and pass during Wednesday's council meeting.
The registry, which would be run through the City Clerk’s office, would verify financial relationships between non-married domestic partners. The list would take a burden off employers, who currently have to independently verify financial relationships if they wish to provide equal benefits for partners of employees.
Couples would be required to show strong financial interdependency to qualify. Applicants to the registry would be eligible if they own joint property, have granted each other power of attorney, are named in each others’ will and meet other requirements.
Many large companies, as well as the city, already offer some form of domestic partner benefits. However, requirements can vary, and it’s expensive and time-consuming to set up criteria and then screen employees’ eligibility, especially for smaller employers.
The registry proposed for Cincinnati is based on one adopted by Columbus in 2012. It requires a $45 fee to register, which Seelbach says will pay for the program. If passed, Seelbach said the plan could be up and running in a few weeks.
Metro on May 29 announced plans to provide health and dental benefits to domestic partners of its employees, becoming the first employer to say it will utilize the registry once it passes.
City Council is likely just days away from voting on the city's $358 million operating budget, but some sticking points remain. A deferred repayment of funds meant to improve eight neighborhoods around the city has raised concerns among some council members.
In 2011, the city borrowed $5 million from tax incremental finance districts in Avondale, Bond Hill, East Walnut Hills, Evanston, Madisonville, Oakley, Queensgate, and Walnut Hills. The money went to pay off debts to Cincinnati Public Schools. $2 million of the loan was scheduled to be repaid by next year, but the budget pushes that repayment off until 2017. The money was culled from increases in tax revenues following capital improvement projects in the neighborhoods. Officials in each say they need the funds to carry out necessary improvement projects. So far, only $1 million has been repaid. Council members Kevin Flynn and Yvette Simpson have raised concerns about the delay in repayment, with Simpson calling it "an assault on neighborhoods."
The $5 million borrowed from the neighborhood TIF districts will be the center of a lawsuit brought against the city by a private developer in Oakley.
Other possible hotspots in the budget include another $900,000 cut in spending that was meant to improve business districts in neighborhoods around the city and a looming fight over what to do with money for the city's bike program. Mayor John Cranley has indicated he wants to use the money for offroad trails, though the city's plan as originally written focuses on bike lanes on city streets.
Eighth Street downtown was closed this morning and City Hall evacuated after a... thing... was found nearby. The thing, which looked like the kind of bomb a zany Scooby Doo villian would plant, was later determined by fire crews to be "just a piece of junk" that probably fell off a truck.
Debate continues over what to do with the old School for Creative and Performing Arts building on Sycamore. Some would like to see a plan to turn the building into luxury apartments come to fruition, though others in the neighborhood have reservations, especially about a proposed parking garage that would eliminate green space around the building. Plans will be discussed further at a community meeting tonight at 6 p.m. at Rothenberg Academy.
A measure to make sure counties and municipalities across the state make public information available online is gaining momentum. Four bills in the Ohio House to create the DataOhio Initiative have passed through committees and are one step closer to becoming law. The bills would create grants for local governing bodies to digitize their budgets and spending information so they're more accessible to citizens.
The Obama administration today is expected to release its strongest proposals yet for fighting climate change, including EPA regulations aimed at reducing carbon emissions from U.S. power plants by 30 percent before 2030.
Finally, a safety note. Tie down your inflatable summer fun devices, folks, or risk a tragic carpet ride. Tie them down well.
Gov. John Kasich says he'll sign a bill that would freeze the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for two years and then weaken them after that.
Kasich announced his intention to sign SB310 shortly after the bill passed the Ohio House yesterday, paving the way for Ohio to become the first state to roll back already approved energy-efficiency standards. 37 states have passed some form of renewable energy standards.
Conservatives in Ohio's state house have taken to disliking the standards, even though the state passed nearly unanimously in 2008. Most memorably, Bill Seitz, a Republican state senator from Cincinnati, called them Stalinist last year.
Kasich yesterday called the current standards “unrealistic” and costly for Ohio’s economy.
But others, including conservative-leaning business groups, say the standards freeze will actually be more costly.
The Ohio Manufacturer’s Association says it fears the measure will increase energy costs and make Ohio less competitive industrially.
Honda, one of Ohio’s biggest employers, has also come out against the freeze.
Several last-minute provisions inserted during debate on the bill in the state Senate could make it harder for renewable energy companies to get loans or increase capacity. Another last-minute change jettisons requirements that power companies get half their renewable energy in the state of Ohio.
Ohio ranks fifth nationally in green jobs, a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics study says. Nearly 140,000 Ohioans work in industries related to renewable energy or environmental conservation.
Environmental groups have also criticized SB310. An analysis by the Ohio Sierra Club says that the average Duke Energy customer in the Cincinnati area will spend $117 more for energy over the next two years thanks to the standards freeze.
Ohio's renewable energy and energy efficiency standards aim to reduce the state’s
reliance on fossil fuels in favor of greener renewable energy sources
like solar and wind energy.
That law originally called for a 5.5 percent increase in the use of renewable sources of energy by 2017. Overall, the law aims to have 12.5 percent of all energy sold by power companies in the state coming from renewable sources by 2025.
SB310 will pause upcoming standards increases and keep them at their current levels until 2017, when a smaller, 3.5 percent increase will kick back in.
Kasich acknowledged that alternative energy is a big part of Ohio’s economy but said there are problems with the standards that needed to be ironed out.
Americans for Prosperity, the big-money conservative group backed by petroleum and gas magnates the Koch Brothers, has been a cheerleader for the standards delays. The group released statements today applauding SB310’s passage. Also supporting the bill were coal and gas powered utilities throughout the state.
The organization’s Ridership and Development Director celebrated Metro’s announcement on Thursday that it will provide health and dental benefits to domestic partners of its employees.
Lahman said she has used same-sex partner benefits in the past, when she went back to school.
“[My partner and I] know first-hand what it means to have the flexibility and equality as others do in the workplace,” Lahman said at a press conference at Metro’s office. “This is just a fantastic day and I’m so proud that Metro is able to do the right thing.”
Metro is the first employer to say it will use Cincinnati’s domestic partner registry if the initiative passes next week in City Council. Should it pass, Cincinnati will be the 10th city in Ohio to have a domestic partner registry.
Mayor John Cranley and City Councilman Chris Seelbach attended the press conference and spoke in support of the move.
Cranley called it “symbolically and substantively right” and during the announcement shared a memory in honor of Maya Angelou, her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.
“She ended it with ‘Good morning,’” Cranley said. “I think this is a good morning for Cincinnati, a new day.”
Many of Cincinnati’s major employers, including Procter & Gamble, Kroger and Macy’s offer same-sex and domestic partner benefits.
Seelbach said while those companies already have systems to evaluate domestic partnerships, the registry will give other companies like Metro an easy way to provide those benefits.
“We are now leaders in the nation and the region to make sure everyone is welcome in our city, regardless of who they love,” Seelbach said. “Everyone should bring their full self to their workplace and be able to do that with health benefits for their partners.”
Seelbach said while Metro is the first to say it will use the registry, other companies like Cincinnati Bell have expressed interest.
Metro is a nonprofit tax-funded public service of the Southwestern Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) with around 850 employees.
One of SORTA’s executive statements says the organization is committed to a work environment that “promotes dignity and respect for all.”
Board Chair Jason Dunn said SORTA’s commitment to inclusion is a great business decision.
“It shows that we value our employees,” Dunn said. “It shows that not only is Metro on the cutting edge of transportation but also making sure we are open to talent and we are open to retaining great talent in our system.”
Same-sex partners with a valid marriage license, same-sex partners registered by a government entity and same-sex partners with a sworn affidavit will be recognized by Metro for domestic partner benefits, which will take effect January 1, 2015.
Picture yourself hopping on a streetcar in Price Hill or Westwood and cruising downtown for lunch.
It probably won’t happen anytime soon. But a group of West Side residents was determined to put just that image in the heads of city council’s transportation committee as it met yesterday to consider what will be done with the city’s aging Western Hills Viaduct.
About 25 people showed up to the meeting to advocate for expanded transit options as planning for the bridge goes forward.
"It's about the future of our city and connecting one another,” said
John Eby, a resident of Westwood, during Wednesday’s meeting. “Think of
this as the economic development tool that will help connect Price Hill
and Westwood to downtown."
Even without the added transit considerations, the project is daunting. The half-mile long bridge is 82 years old and was last rehabbed in 1977. So it’s getting a little crumbly.
Though it’s structurally sound for now, engineers say it will need to be completely rehabbed or replaced in the next 10 years. A study released last week found the bridge’s condition to be among of the worst in the state.
The viaduct is owned by Hamilton County, which pays Cincinnati to do upkeep.
City engineers are leaning toward replacement, though that’s going to be expensive. Estimated costs come in around $240 million for a new bridge, which would have two decks and be placed just south of the current one. So far, the city’s dedicated less than $6 million for the project.
But this moment, as the city mulls what to do about the bridge, is the perfect time to look at new transit options, advocates say.
Adding dedicated lanes for light rail would cost $24 million a lane, engineers estimate. But designing the bridge with extra structural integrity for streetcar rails, which don’t require extra lanes, could be a cheaper option, said city engineer Richard Szekeresh.
It wouldn’t be the first time a streetcar has made the trip over the Mill Creek and train yards spanned by the viaduct. In the 1950s, streetcars ran along the bridge’s lower deck.
But don’t start making plans to get out of downtown and hit up your favorite Westside chili parlor for lunch just yet. City officials say they’re in the opening stages of the project. Engineers hope to have designs drawn up by the end of the year, but it will be six to eight years before construction starts, according to city transportation manager Michael Moore. Before that is the long road to secure state funding and make sure the necessary local funds are in place.
Advocates say the project may be the last chance to leave the door open for future transit options like light rail or the streetcar. A new Eighth Street viaduct was just completed, and crews are wrapping up work on the Sixth Street bridge as well. Neither will carry rail into the West Side, which is home to about 20 percent of the city.
The city’s cost of a long-planned piece of cycling infrastructure could more than double if City Council approves a motion Vice Mayor David Mann planned to introduce on April 23.
Mayor John Cranley successfully paused the Central Parkway Bikeway Project for public discourse in response to a handful of business owners and residents taking exception to it, and a spokesman for Mann shared his suggested compromise with CityBeat today.
In response to an April 21 special Neighborhoods Committee meeting, Mann seeks to alter the bike route to appease people who don’t want to see parking spaces removed, but the updated plan will cost an additional $110,00 on top of the $82,600 the city would pay under the original plan, which would create the beginning of a cycling corridor running from Elm Street downtown to Ludlow Avenue in Clifton. The project was supposed to break ground next month and could lose $330,400 in federal money if the contract isn’t awarded by May 1.
“We routinely spend hundreds of thousands of dollars as a city to create new jobs in our community,” Mann said in a statement. “We should not approve a new project that places 60 newly created jobs in jeopardy when such a sensible accommodation is available.”
The planned bikeway is an innovative piece of cycling infrastructure meant to better protect cyclists along a critical thoroughfare that would connect a number of inner-city neighborhoods and business districts. The lane will be protected, meaning cyclists will have their own lane with a buffer separating them from traffic; in some areas plastic bollards will separate the bike and automobile lanes. The street will not be widened, so traffic lanes will be impacted through restriping, and parking will be restricted during peak traffic hours in the morning and evening.
Opponents of the project are concerned about losing public, on-street parking for parts of the day as well as potentially encountering traffic issues from shaving lanes from Brighton Place to Liberty Street. They also worry the bollards will become a blight issue and emergency vehicles will be impeded during one-lane hours.
Mann’s motion supports an alternative plan for a section running from Ravine Street to Brighton Place that would preserve 23 parking spaces full-time, alter 4,300 square feet of greenspace and remove 15 trees at an estimated cost of $110,000. The parking spaces would benefit a building owner and his tenants at 2145 Central Parkway.
City Councilman Chris Seelbach and others demonstrated frustration with the administration’s interest in stepping in at the 11th hour.
“I think we have reached a new era in Cincinnati: two steps forward, pause, lots of long meetings, two steps forward, and I’m convinced after the pause and lots of long meetings, we will continue to go two steps forward today,” Seelbach said at the April 21 meeting.
Mayor Cranley requested City Manager Scott Stiles delay awarding a contract after meeting with local business owner Tim Haines, who purchased a vacant building located at 2145 Central Parkway in 2012 for $230,000. His building now houses 65 employees from 12 different businesses including his own, Relocation Strategies. Haines has become a mouthpiece for the opposition to the bikeway — though he adamantly states he is not against the lane; he is just against the project’s current incarnation as it affects Central Parkway near his business, which utilizes 500 feet of on-street, unmetered parking, which translates to 30 parking spaces.
“If parking wasn’t an issue, I would open up my arms and welcome the bike path,” Haines says. “Parking for my 65 tenants is in jeopardy. As a business owner I have to fight for my tenants. … Could they park and walk a quarter of a mile? They could, but that’s not what they signed up for when they moved in.”
Haines has a 16-space parking lot adjacent to his building that some of his tenants use and also owns a parking lot across the street that is in disrepair. Haines says he already cleared it of underbrush to cut down criminal activity and disposed of dozens of tires and beer bottles. He says it would cost up to $300,000 to upgrade the lot.
During the April 21 presentation, Department of Transportation and Engineering (DOTE) Director Michael Moore presented the committee with an alternative recently developed with Cranley’s office that he said would appease Haines and his tenants but would cost more money. Moore pushed the notion that the alternative creates a more balanced bikeway plan.
The original plan, passed by council last year, restricts parking in front of Haines’ building from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Moore’s alternative, which Mann is on board with, is to ramp the bike lane over the curb adjacent to a sidewalk where there is currently a tree-lined area in front of Haines’ building and another business in order to preserve public parking full-time.
At the meeting, council member Young took exception to the suggestion of changing the project at this point.
“For the life of me, I don’t see where the reasonableness and the balance is with people who come so far after the fact that want us to make these changes and the dollar amount it’s going to cost the taxpayers to get it done,” Young said. “I am appalled that people can come after the fact and tie up all these people down here to simply want accommodations for them.”
Mann shared another perspective.
“There’s a gentleman who has brought 60 jobs to the city, including some folks who have Parkinson’s and use the building, and the proposal that’s being made seems to me to represent balance,” Mann said. “We spend millions of dollars, typically, to support development, to support jobs, and you’re saying that the proposal that was originally approved by this council without a hearing like this is so pristine that it cant be adjusted in any way, and if it’s adjusted that is a statement of imbalance? I just don’t follow that.”
For the past year and a half, DOTE conducted surveys, sought public input and developed plans for the bikeway. After a strong consensus, the department chose the protected bikeway plan. The bikeway is estimated to add just three seconds of motorist commute time by 2030, though some naysayers suggest that delivery trucks will clog the lanes and the turn left from Ravine Street will create an even longer lag.
Community outreach for the design began in March of last year with eight community council meetings. Letters were mailed to residents, businesses and property owners, but Haines and several other business owners stated they didn’t receive any and weren’t aware of the project until late last year.
A website designed for public feedback also garnered about 600 messages mainly supporting the bikeway project. DOTE held an open house last September and the Over-The-Rhine and Northside community councils, Findlay Market and Northside Business Association endorsed the project.
Simpson expressed frustration with halting progress for a last-minute meeting.
“I don’t think that’s an appropriate process,” she said. “Really, technically you can go over everything over the past two years. The reality is we need to look forward. If we want to be less auto-focused and more focused on other types of transit, we’re going to have to ruffle a couple of feathers.”
Supporters — some who biked to the April
21 meeting and utilized a bike valet setup in front of City Hall —
represented various groups of the community from health and community
councils to business owners and cyclists. Their number doubled opponents
— mainly business owners along Central Parkway in the West End and the
West End Community Council, though some West End residents and business
owners supported the original bikeway plan.
The group gave Ohio a “D-” ranking after its government spending transparency website earned 51 points out of 100 in U.S. Public Interest Research Group's fifth annual “Following the Money” report.
“Ohio’s been kind of sinking through the ratings year by year,” says Phineas Baxendall, a U.S. PIRG senior policy analyst and co-author of the report released on Tuesday. “It used to do much better, which doesn’t mean they’re dismantling their transparency systems. It just means our standards get tougher each year and they’re more staying in place while other states are improving.”
Ohio’s the only state in the nation that doesn’t offer certain customizable search options including bid award recipients, keywords, agency and bulk download searches. Ohio’s poor score follows three years of ranking in the bottom half of the study.
Researchers look for transparency websites to be comprehensive, one-stop and offer simple search formats.
The nation as a whole is moving toward a more transparent approach to documenting government spending. Since PIRG began the study, all six categories it uses to compile rankings have shown an increase in states performing specific duties. The largest leaps in the past five years involve showing how a project benefits from taxpayer subsidies, which has seen an increase from two to 33 states, and how tax money is spent with an increase from eight to 44 states. All states now have ledger listings for transactions of any government spending on a website, compared to only 32 five years ago.
Ohio’s score doesn’t reflect Cincinnati’s efforts to be transparent. In a 2013 study in transparency of the 30 largest cities in America, Cincinnati scored a “B+” for providing ledger listings for spending information, allowing Cincinnatians to view where money is spent, specific recipients of tax subsidies and the existence of a service request center allowing residents to notify officials about quality of life issues.
Suggestions for improvement included making checkbook-level spending information searchable by the vendor who received the money and developing a comprehensive transparency website.
“We feel strongly that this isn’t a partisan issue, and the fact that states that do best in our rankings show no political pattern, with Texas and Massachusetts standing side-by-side, sort of speaks that this is one of those issues that should not be politicized,” Baxendall says. “We look forward to advancement in transparency in Ohio regardless of who is in office.”