Cincinnati passed its $358 million operating budget yesterday, and it’s great and all, except for the parts that aren’t. Nearly everyone on council applauded the fact that the budget is balanced, or close to balanced, or … well, I won’t replay that argument, but the city is getting close to leveling spending with what it takes in without layoffs or deep cuts to core programs.
But there are big concerns, too. Council members Yvette Simpson and Chris Seelbach questioned a few issues surrounding funding of certain non-profits and community redevelopment groups. These included $4 million borrowed from eight neighborhood TIF districts, cuts to the Neighborhood Business District Improvement Program, and some last-minute additions to the budget. Critics of the additions say they’re sweetheart deals built on cronyism. Some of the organizations in question have connections with big political players, including former Mayor Dwight Tillery’s Center for Closing the Health Gap, which will receive $500,000 from one of the Monday add-ons in the budget.
Simpson was the most vocal about the issues surrounding human services and neighborhood redevelopment funding.
“I was committed and part of an administration prior that was really invested in supporting neighborhood development in a significant way,” she said. “And we’ve cut $4.5 million to neighborhood development in this budget, and I think we’re going to regret that.”
• Council also passed Seelbach’s Domestic Partner Registry initiative yesterday, which will allow same-sex couples to register with the city so they can receive equal benefits from participating employers.
“Ten years ago, at this moment … some called this the most anti-gay city in the country, including me,” Seelbach said. “We’ve come a really long way, and this is one of the last pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, the state of Ohio doesn’t recognize marriage equality. It will soon, but until then, this is a tool.”
• A new national study by Homes for All Alliance to be released Friday shows that Cincinnati, like much of the country, is in an affordable housing crisis. More than 63 percent of households in Cincinnati are renters, not homeowners, according to the study. Of those households, half pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent, the federal threshold for unaffordable housing. Even worse, 30 percent of renters in Cincinnati spend more than half their monthly paychecks on a place to live.
A panel discussion on the study and affordable housing in Cincinnati is being held Friday at 6 p.m. at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. It will feature Vice Mayor David Mann, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing Director Mary Burke Rivers, Bonnie Neumeier from Peaslee Neighborhood Center and other advocates for affordable housing.
• The Ohio House yesterday passed a measure to allow electronic tolling, which could have big implications for the Brent Spence Bridge. The bridge is crumbling, and Ohio and Kentucky are currently working on a way to rebuild it. Engineers believe it will take $2.5 billion for a new bridge, and much of that money may have to come from tolls, lawmakers say. Though Ohio is (reluctantly) on board, voters in Kentucky have voiced strong opposition to tolls.
• In the “news that isn’t really new but that you should keep an eye on anyway” category, fixes for the Voting Rights Act are still stalled in Congress and probably will be for a while. The Supreme Court struck down a segment of the law regarding standards that determine which states will receive close scrutiny due to past voting rights violations. Congress can set new standards, but given that Congress can barely decide where they're all going to grab lunch these days, it looks like it could be a long wait.
• Finally, someone took DNA from a relative of Vincent Van Gogh, and, uh, 3D printed a copy of the artist’s ear, which he is said to have cut off in a fit of mental illness in 1888. It’s on display in a German museum, because paintings are kind of boring but Jurassic Park-like replicas of severed ears from long-dead artists are awesome.
Protesting illegal firings, low wages and erratic scheduling, Walmart workers are taking a stand this afternoon in Cincinnati by walking off their jobs.
Workers will protest outside the Walmart on Ferguson Road at 4:30 p.m. this afternoon with Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, according to a press release sent out this morning.
Today’s strike is part of a larger strike movement happening in 20 cities across the country this week, leading up to the annual shareholder meeting.
The meeting is this Friday and hundreds of worker shareholders are making the trip to Arkansas as part of a union-backed workers group called OUR Walmart. They plan to request a living wage and family-sustaining jobs, calling for the new CEO Doug McMillion to “take the company in a new direction,” the press release said.
A typical Walmart worker is paid less than $25,000 a year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average retail worker makes only $21,000 per year and cashiers even less.
Walmart employees say they have to rely on food stamps while their company received $7.8 billion in tax breaks and subsidies in 2013.
OUR Walmart advocates for a $25,000 base salary for all employees.
“A minimum $25,000 salary at Walmart would not only help families, it would boost job creation, consumer spending, and the company’s bottom-line,” the press release said.
The major employer is currently on trial for worker rights violations involving firing workers who went on strike last year at the company’s annual shareholder meeting.
The country’s largest and most profitable corporation is also tightening its belt; Walmart took $740 million out of its cost structure in the past year because its operating income grew faster than sales.
Walmart has had to make some changes lately in response to worker’s claims.
In March, the pregnancy policy was updated after an OUR Walmart campaign, allowing for more accommodations for pregnant women.
In April, the retailer changed its internal scheduling system, making it easier for part-time workers to pick up extra shifts online.
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?
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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.