With the support of local officials from around the state, Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld is launching a website called ProtectMyOhio.com to organize efforts to restore local government funding cut during Gov. John Kasich’s time in office.
Speaking during a phone conference today, Sittenfeld, Dayton Commissioner and mayoral candidate Nan Whaley, Columbus Councilman Zach Klein and Toledo Councilman and mayoral candidate Joe McNamara described how state funding cuts have forced cities and counties to cut services.
“What we’re really trying to do today is speak up and sound the alarm about the governor’s ongoing raid on the Local Government Fund,” Sittenfeld said. “Over the last four years, the governor has taken away $3 billion in local government funding. This year alone, municipalities across Ohio are going to receive nearly $1 billion less than they previously would have.”
He added, “This is the exact same money that cities, villages and townships used to keep cops in the street, staff our fire departments, fix the potholes and some of the other basic services that citizens rightly expect and the local governments are the ones responsible for delivering.”
In the past, the Kasich administration has argued the cuts were necessary. When previously asked about cuts to education and other state funding, Rob Nichols, Kasich’s spokesperson, told CityBeat, “The reality is we walked into an $8 billion budget deficit. … We had to fix that.”
But the 2014-2015 budget is not under the fiscal pressures Kasich experienced when he took office, and the governor is pursuing $1.4 billion in tax cuts over the next three years, which he argues will help spur small businesses around the state. During the phone conference, local officials said the revenue going to tax cuts would be better used to return funds to local governments.
Sittenfeld says the cuts have left Cincinnati with $12 million less per year. “That is the difference between us having our first police recruit class in nearly six years versus not having it,” he said. “It’s the difference between enduring dangerous fire engine brownouts versus not having to do so.”
Klein, who represented Columbus in the call, said the cuts have amounted to nearly $30 million for his city, which he said is enough money to help renovate nearly all the city’s recreation centers, parks and pools.
“No one is spared,” Klein said. “Everyone is getting cut across the state, and every neighborhood — no matter if you’re in a small village or in a large city like Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo or Dayton — (is) at some level feeling the effects of the cuts, whether it’s actual cuts in services or what could be investments in neighborhoods.”
Klein said the cuts, which have been carried out by a Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature, contradict values espoused by national Republicans. At the federal level, Republicans typically argue that states should be given more say in running programs like Medicaid, but Ohio Republicans don’t seem to share an interest in passing money down to more local governments, according to Klein.
Some state officials have previously argued that it’s not the state’s responsibility to take care of local governments, but Sittenfeld says it’s unfair to not give money back to the cities: “Cincinnati is a major economic engine for the entire state. We’re sending a lot of money to Columbus, so I think it’s fair to say we would like some of that money back. John Kasich doesn’t have to fill the potholes, and John Kasich doesn’t have to put a cop on the street.”
Whaley, who represented Dayton in the call, said, “There’s a county perspective on this as well. The counties would certainly say that the unfunded mandates that the state legislature brings down daily are covered by those local government funds. While (state officials) keep on making rules for the counties to administer services and make those efforts, it’s pretty disingenuous to say that (county officials) don’t get a share of the income.”
A Policy Matters Ohio report found the state has cut $1.4 billion from local government funding — nearly half of total funding — during Kasich’s time as governor. The report pinned much of that drop on the estate tax, which was phased out at the beginning of 2013 and would have provided $625.3 million to local governments in the 2014-2015 budget. The estate tax was repealed in 2011 by the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature and Kasich.
Cincinnati had structural deficit problems before Kasich took office, but local officials argue the state’s cut have made matters worse. When presenting his 2013 budget proposal, City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. said the state funding reductions cost Cincinnati $22.2 million in revenues for the year.
Kasich’s office did not return CityBeat’s phone calls for this story.
Kasich’s latest budget proposal has also been criticized by Republicans and Democrats for tax cuts and education funding plans that benefit the wealthy and expanding Medicaid (“Smoke and Mirrors,” issue of Feb. 20).
City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee moved forward with two controversial measures in two 5-4 votes today that will allow the city to rehire retirees while still paying their pensions and create an executive project director position for the streetcar project.
One of the measures repeals the city’s ban on “double dipping,” which means rehired retirees will be able to simultaneously cash in a salary and pension payments. The measures will allow the city to hire John Deatrick, the current project manager for The Banks, to head the streetcar project. The city could not previously hire Deatrick because he formally retired from the city and is currently receiving pension payments.
The city says Deatrick has the experience and expertise necessary to help bring the streetcar project’s costs in line, but critics say the city should not be hiring someone for the streetcar project when the city is considering laying off 344 employees, including 189 cops and 80 firefighters, to balance the budget.
Deatrick says the layoffs are unfortunate, but he
emphasizes that they are occurring through the general fund. If he was
hired, Deatrick’s salary would be paid through the capital budget, a
completely separate fund that the city uses for major development
projects. Because of legal and traditional constraints, capital budget funds generally can’t be used to balance the general fund.
“The capital budget generates projects that bring money into the general fund,” Deatrick says.
Deatrick’s point is similar to an argument often touted by City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr., who says the city needs to economically grow out of structural budget deficits. Dohoney and other city officials say the true cause of Cincinnati’s structural budget imbalance has been the city’s dwindling population in the past decade, and bringing people back to Cincinnati through economic development projects, including the streetcar, is a better approach than austerity that would cause more layoffs and economic pain.
Others, particularly Democratic mayoral candidate John Cranley, aren’t convinced. In a press statement that used vocabulary that often comes from streetcar opponent COAST (Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes), Cranley said, “Since day one the streetcar has been a poorly conceived, poorly managed boondoggle that is now costing the city even more money. The fact that this being done while police officers and firefighters are facing layoffs is a slap in the face of those who risk so much to make sure that our city is safe.”
But the city says Deatrick’s involvement could help bring
the streetcar project’s costs down, and Deatrick seems to agree.
“That’s been my whole ‘shtick,’ ” Deatrick says, before citing numerous aspects of the streetcar project he would be interested in looking at to bring costs in line.
Opponents have pointed to the streetcar’s multiple problems, including unexpected costs and delays, as proof the project has been doomed from the start. But Deatrick says it’s normal for big projects to deal with hurdles, and he cautions he would expect to deal with more rising problems if he takes the job.
“Any time you try to build something — even out in the middle of a corn field — you’re going to have unexpected, unanticipated issues,” he says. “These things happen, and that’s what project management is all about.”
Deatrick says he has long supported the streetcar, and he plans to expand the project up to the University of Cincinnati and the rest of the uptown area if he’s put in charge.
While Deatrick has discussed heading the streetcar project with city officials, no formal offers have been made yet. Still, City Council members and Dohoney repeatedly named Deatrick as a potential candidate in the special session of City Council today.
Some council members said they were concerned the double-dipping measure will be used for more similar hires in the future, which could raise hiring costs as the city pays for multiple employees’ salaries and pensions at the same time.
Democratic council members Roxanne Qualls, Laure
Quinlivan, Yvette Simpson, Cecil Thomas and Wendell Young supported the
measures. Democrats Chris Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld, Republican
Charlie Winburn and Independent Chris Smitherman voted in opposition.
Deatrick’s resume shows experience going back decades. Since June 2008, Deatrick has headed The Banks project, which recently won the American Planning Association’s 2013 National Planning Excellence Award for Implementation (“Bank On It,” issue of Jan. 16).
Before that, he worked as deputy director and chief engineer at the District of Columbia Department of Transportation from May 2002 to August 2007, where he says he helped manage parts of the D.C. streetcar, among other projects.
Prior to his work at D.C., Deatrick started his career as an urban development
technician at Cincinnati’s Department of Transportation and Engineering on September 1973. He helped with many projects around the city before eventually rising to the director position in
November 1999, where he remained until May 2002.
The streetcar is one of the few issues dividing Democratic mayoral candidates Cranley and Qualls, making the 2013 mayoral race another important election for the future of the project (“Back on the Ballot,” issue of Jan. 23).
Speaking at a press conference today, city officials did not mask their contempt for the ruling that put the parking plan on hold earlier in the day, saying it will force the city to make cuts and layoffs to balance the 2014 budget and potentially eliminate the passage of expedited legislation.
The press conference was in response to a ruling from Hamilton County Judge Robert Winkler, which opened the parking plan to referendum and ordered a permanent injunction on the plan pending any referendum effort. City Solicitor John Curp said the city is appealing the ruling.
Mayor Mark Mallory and City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr.
explained the city will now have to close a $25.8 million shortfall in
the budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins July 1.
Dohoney said he has already ordered city departments to begin
preparations for Plan B, which will lay off 344 employees, including 80
firefighter and 189 police positions, to balance projected deficits.
“Part of the irony is we're swearing in a recruit class tomorrow,” he said, then shook his head. “Too bad.”
In addition to meeting the July 1 budget deadline, the city has to expedite some layoff notices to meet union contracts, which typically require a notice 30 days in advance.
Curp said the ruling also poses significant legal challenges that will hinder the city’s ability to expedite legislation with emergency clauses. Emergency clauses are often used by City Council to remove a 30-day waiting period on passed laws, and the city argues they also remove the ability to referendum.
The layoffs could be retroactively pulled back if the city wins in appeals courts or if the referendum effort fails to gather enough petitions.
“Don't sign the petition,” Mallory said. “If you sign a petition, you're laying off a cop or firefighter.”
Dohoney said the delays make the city look sluggish — an image that he says the city has been trying to overcome. “One of the criticisms I’ve gotten is that this city takes too long to get deals done,” he said. “This complicates that.”
City Council approved the parking plan to lease the city’s parking assets to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority to help balance the budget for the next two fiscal years and fund development projects around the city, including a downtown grocery store (“Parking Stimulus,” issue of Feb. 27).
Opponents of the plan argued that there were alternatives that did not involve laying off cops or firefighters. Councilman Chris Seelbach proposed Plan S, which would redirect $7.5 million in casino revenue to help balance the deficit, cut $5 million based on the results of the city's priority-driven budgeting process and put two charter amendments on the ballot that, if approved, would include up to a $10-per-month trash fee and increase the city's admissions tax by 2 percent.
At the press conference, Mallory called the alternatives “unworkable.” He said Plan S in particular does not work because it relies on a ballot initiative that would have to be voted on in November. “We don’t have until November,” he said.
Opponents say they’re concerned the parking plan will cede too much control over the city’s parking meters, which they say will lead to a spike in parking rates.
The city says rate increases are initially capped at 3 percent or inflation — whichever is higher — but the rates can change with a unanimous vote from a special committee, approval from the city manager and a final nod from the Port Authority. The special committee would be made up of four people appointed by the Port Authority and one appointed by the city manager.
In the legal proceedings, the two sides are arguing whether emergency clauses eliminate the ability to hold a referendum on legislation. Opponents of the parking plan, headed by the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), say the city charter is ambiguous with its definition of emergency clauses, and legal precedent demands courts side with voters’ right to referendum when there’s ambiguity.
Supporters of the parking plan cite state law, which says emergency legislation is not subject to referendum. Terry Nestor, who represented the city in the court hearings, said legal precedent requires the city to defer to state law as long as state law is not contradicted in the city charter.
Winkler sided with opponents of the parking plan in his decision. He wrote in his ruling, “If the people of Cincinnati had intended to exempt emergency legislation from their referendum powers, they could have done so when adopting Article II, Section 3 of the City Charter.”
Mallory says the city is not disputing voters’ right to referendum in a general sense; instead, he says the city needs to expedite the budget process to balance the budget before fiscal year 2014.
City officials say the parking plan is necessary largely because of Gov. John Kasich’s local government funding cuts, which Dohoney previously said cost Cincinnati $22.2 million in annual revenues (“Enemy of the State,” issue of March 20). Opponents argue Cincinnati had structurally imbalanced budgets years before Kasich took office, but the city says Kasich’s policies have made the situation much worse.
The Ohio Senate's budget plan for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 would restore about $717 million in education funding, but the gains wouldn't be enough to outweigh $1.8 billion in education cuts from the 2012-2013 budget, which was approved by the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich in 2011.
The bill would also favor the state's property-wealthiest districts, which can already raise more money for local schools by leveraging their massive local property values.
About 85 percent of the wealthiest school districts will get funding increases, while 40 percent of the poorest rural districts receive no increases, according to Stephen Dyer, a former Democratic state representative and an education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio.
Dyer put the regressive breakdown in chart form in a blog post:
The chart shows the bottom one-third of school districts only get about 15 percent of the increases, while the top one-third are getting a vast majority of the increases.
Still, Dyer points out that the budget is increasing funding for urban, high-poverty areas, while rural areas are generally getting the smallest increases.
The budget would also include $250 million in one-time money for the Straight A Fund, which is supposed to entice innovation at schools around the state. When the program was first proposed in Kasich's budget plan, the Kasich administration asked for $300 million.
Even with the Straight A Fund, the funding increases wouldn't be enough to overcome $1.8 billion in cuts in the last biennium budget, which is a previous estimate from progressive think tanks Policy Matters Ohio and Innovation Ohio that includes tax reimbursements for tangible personal property and public utility property, federal stimulus funds and state aid to schools.
Many school districts have coped with the cuts through local tax levies, which Innovation Ohio previously compared to a $1.1 billion tax increase across the state.
In 2012, Cincinnati Public Schools was one of the many school districts to successfully pass a levy after dealing with years of cuts from multiple levels of government ("Battered But Not Broken," issue of Oct. 3).
The changes proposed by the Ohio legislature are the latest in a chain of attempts to reform the state's school funding formula, which has a history of legal and political problems.
Between 1997 and 2002, the Ohio Supreme Court issued four decisions that found the state's school funding formula unconstitutional because it relied too much on property taxes and failed to provide "a thorough and efficient system of common schools."
But 16 years later, critics argue the system still relies too much on property taxes. According to them, the reliance on property taxes drives inequality because property-wealthy areas can more easily leverage their high property values to fund good schools, while property-poor areas are generally left behind.
Kasich attempted to address the issues with his own rework of the education funding formula, but the rework was dismissed by the Ohio House and Senate — a victory for critics who deemed Kasich's plan regressive ("Smoke and Mirrors," issue of Feb. 20).
The Ohio legislature and Kasich must approve a budget plan by June 30.
In a ruling today, Hamilton County Judge Robert Winkler said the city will have to allow for a referendum on the parking plan and imposed a permanent injunction pending the outcome of a referendum.
The ruling means the city may be unable to rely on the parking plan to balance fiscal year 2014’s budget, and the city may be forced to find cuts elsewhere by July 1, when the new budget will kick in.
The ruling may be appealed, but City Solicitor John Curp says he is not aware of any filing yet. He says Mayor Mark Mallory and the city administration plan to hold a press conference later this afternoon to discuss the ruling in further detail.
For opponents of the parking plan, the ruling comes as a big victory that will allow them to put the parking plan on the ballot if they gather enough eligible petition signatures by April 5.
For the city, the ruling potentially leaves a $25.8 million hole in the 2014 budget.
When the restraining order was extended for two weeks on March 20, city spokesperson Meg Olberding told CityBeat the delays were causing the city to approach a “pressure point”: “We respect the court's right to do that (the extension), and know that every day that we cannot make the parking deal happen is a day that we are closer to having to lay people off.”In the past, City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. said the plan will force the city to lay off 344 employees, including 80 firefighter and 189 police positions.
But opponents argue there are ways to solve the budget without laying people off. As an alternative to the parking plan, Councilman Chris Seelbach proposed Plan S, which would redirect $7.5 million in casino revenue to help balance the deficit, cut $5 million based on the results of the city's priority-driven budgeting process and put two charter amendments on the ballot that, if approved, would include up to a $10-per-month trash fee and increase the city's admissions tax by 2 percent.
City Council approved the parking plan on March 6 to lease the city’s parking assets to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority to help balance the budget for the next two fiscal years and fund more than $100 million in development projects, including the creation of a downtown grocery store and more than 300 luxury apartments ("Parking Stimulus," issue of Feb. 27).
Opponents of the parking plan say they’re concerned the city will cede too much control over its parking assets and cause parking rates to skyrocket. The city says rate increases are initially capped at 3 percent or inflation — whichever is higher.
But the rates can change with a unanimous vote from a special committee, approval from the city manager and a final nod from the Port Authority. The special committee would comprise of four people appointed by the Port Authority and one appointed by the city manager.
The ruling comes after the city and opponents of the parking plan met in court on March 15 to discuss whether the plan is subject to referendum.
Curt Hartmann, an attorney who represents the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and opponents of the parking plan, said the city charter is vague on its definition of emergency clauses, and legal precedent supports siding with voters’ right to referendum when there is ambiguity.
The city cited state law to argue emergency clauses, which remove a 30-day waiting period on legislation, eliminate the possibility of referendum. Terry Nestor, who represented the city, said legal precedent requires the city to defer to state law as long as state law is not contradicted in the city charter.
With his decision, Winkler sided with opponents of the parking plan. He wrote in the ruling, “If the people of Cincinnati had intended to exempt emergency legislation from their referendum powers, they could have done so when adopting Article II, Section 3 of the City Charter.”
The tea party-backed amendment that would semi-privatize Cincinnati’s ailing pension system gathered enough signatures earn a place on the November ballot.
Of 14,215 signatures scrutinized so far, 8,653 were valid, according to Sally Krisel, deputy director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections. That clears the requirement of 7,443 signatures, but the numbers will grow as the board continues counting petitions.
The success follows a well-funded effort from Cincinnati for Pension Reform, which paid California-based Arno Petition Consultants nearly $70,000 to collect enough signatures, according to petition documents obtained through the city.
The amendment would privatize pension plans so city employees hired after January 2014 contribute to and manage their own retirement accounts — a shift from the current set-up in which the city pools pension funds and manages the investments through an independent board.
But unlike private-sector employees, city workers might not qualify for Social Security benefits, which means they would lack the safety net and benefits that shield them from bad investments.
Alternatively, the city could be required to pay into Social Security. An Aug. 5 report from the city administration claims that would make the tea party-backed system more expensive than the current pension system, which would defeat the reform’s main intention.
Supporters of the tea party amendment say it’s necessary because Cincinnati is dragging its feet in addressing an $862 million pension liability, which earned the city a downgraded bond rating from Moody’s in a July 15 report. Although the city passed reforms in 2011 addressing future pension costs, the unfunded liability actually grew by $134 million between 2012 and 2013.
The Cincinnati Retirement System board is working on changes that would address the unfunded liability, but so far no agreement has been reached as board members argue over whether taxpayers or retirees should be hit hardest by more cost-cutting measures.
City officials acknowledge the issues with the current pension system, but they claim the tea party-backed amendment would exacerbate cost problems and reduce payments to future city retirees.
“Under the guise of ‘reform,’ a well-financed out-of-state group is pushing an amendment that spells economic disaster for the future city retirees and the city’s budget,” Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls said in a statement. “Current and future retirees need an income they can live on. This amendment is a budget-buster for retirees and the city.”
City Council condemned the amendment in a resolution unanimously passed on Aug. 7.
CityBeat’s Aug. 14 news story will give an in-depth look at the amendment and the campaign behind it.
This story was updated at 5:07 p.m. with the most up-to-date numbers.
A new poll from the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati found a clear majority of Ohioans supports the Medicaid expansion.
The poll asked a random sample of 866 Ohioans, "Generally speaking, do you favor or oppose expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance to more low-income uninsured adults?" About 63 percent of respondents said they favor an expansion, with a margin of error of 3.3 percent.
The poll found a partisan divide on the issue: About 82 percent of Democrats support the expansion, while 55 percent of Republicans oppose it.
The question was part of the Ohio Health Issues Poll conducted between May 19 and June 2. The University of Cincinnati's Institute for Policy Research has conducted the poll for the Health Foundation each year since 2005.
"The Health Foundation supports the expansion of Medicaid in Ohio because we believe that it will have a positive impact on the health of uninsured Ohioans who will be newly covered by Medicaid," said Health Foundation CEO Jim Schwab in a statement. "We also believe that expansion of Medicaid will have a positive impact on Ohio’s economy. This positive impact was validated in an economic impact study that the Foundation helped underwrite earlier this year. The OHIP findings show that the majority of Ohioans also support the expansion."
Under the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), states are asked to expand their Medicaid programs to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or an annual income of about $15,856 for a single-person household and $32,499 for a family of four.
For the first three years, the federal government would pay for the entire expansion. Following that, the federal government would phase down its support for the expansion to 90 percent of the costs, where it would indefinitely remain.
Earlier this year, the Health Policy Institute of Ohio released an analysis that found the Medicaid expansion would insure nearly half a million Ohioans and save the state about $1.8 billion in the next decade.
Although Gov. John Kasich supports the expansion, his Republican colleagues, who control the Ohio House and Senate, have so far passed on the expansion in budget plans and legislation.
In an April interview with CityBeat, Michael Dittoe, spokesperson for Ohio House Republicans, said the proposed federal commitment to the Medicaid expansion is unprecedented, which, according to Dittoe, makes Republican legislators skeptical that the federal government can live up to such obligations in the long term.
Bipartisan legislation introduced this week in the Ohio House and Senate would reform the Medicaid program — supposedly in a way that lowers costs without cutting services. But the legislation wouldn't take up the Medicaid expansion.
Gov. John Kasich touted a rosy, progressive vision when announcing his education reform plan Jan. 31, but reality does not match the governor’s optimism. It’s true Kasich’s proposed 2014-2015 budget
will not reduce school funding, but under the Kasich administration,
local schools will still have a net loss in state funds.
The governor’s office released tentative budget numbers yesterday that show the Kasich plan will give Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) $8.8 million more funding for the 2014 fiscal year. But that’s not enough to make up for the $39 million CPS will lose in the same fiscal year due to Kasich’s first budget, which was passed passed in 2011. Even with the new education plan, the net loss in the 2014 fiscal year is $30.2 million.
The problem is Kasich’s first budget had massive cuts for schools. The elimination of the tangible personal
property reimbursements (TPP) hit CPS particularly hard, as CityBeat previously covered (“Battered But Not Broken,”
issue of Oct. 3). In the Cut Hurts Ohio website, Innovation Ohio and Policy Matters Ohio estimated Kasich’s budget cuts resulted in $1.8 billion less funding for
education statewide. In Hamilton County, the cuts led to
$117 million less funding.
Kasich’s massive cuts didn’t even lead to lower taxes for many Ohioans. A report from Innovation Ohio found school districts and voters made up for the big education cuts with $487 million in new school levies. In 2012, Cincinnati voters approved a $51.5 million levy for CPS. The school levies are a direct increase on local income and property taxes, but they’re measures Ohioans clearly felt they had to take in the face of big state budget cuts.
For more analysis of Kasich’s budget, check out CityBeat’s other coverage:
A budget plan proposed by two council members today would eliminate layoffs at the fire department and reduce the amount of police layoffs to 25, down from 49, by making cuts elsewhere, particularly by forcing city employees to take 10 furlough days in fiscal year 2014.
Council members Roxanne Qualls and Chris Seelbach are co-sponsoring the motion. If it's approved by City Council, the amount of city employee layoffs in the fiscal year 2014 budget would drop to 84, down from the original "Plan B" estimate of 344, by amending Mayor Mark Mallory's budget proposal, which was announced yesterday.
The news is being well received by public safety advocates, but it's also vindication for some of the city's harshest critics. Democratic mayoral candidate John Cranley previously said the city was acting like "the boy who cried wolf" by suggesting it had to lay off 344 city employees, including 80 firefighter and 189 police positions.
"In 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 … they threatened to lay off police and firefighters, and it never happened," Cranley previously told CityBeat.
But avoiding the layoffs comes with large cuts and shifted priorities elsewhere: Furlough days for supervisory and leadership personnel would be bumped up from five to 10 ($250,000 in savings), all council members would be asked to take 10 furlough days ($22,700), City Council's office budgets would be reduced ($18,000), the clerk of council's office budget would also be reduced ($46,000), the departments of community development and economic development would be merged ($171,000) and the account for firefighter's protective gear would be reduced ($100,000). In total, the cuts in the motion add up to $607,000.
The motion will be formally introduced at tonight's Budget and Finance Committee meeting, which will also act as a public hearing for budget issues. The hearing will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Duke Energy Convention Center.
The layoff reductions come after the city manager and mayor spent a bulk of the past six months repeatedly warning that the city would have to carry out significant public safety layoffs if the city didn't lease its parking assets to the Port Authority. That plan would have opened up funds to help balance the budget for two years and pay for economic development projects, including a downtown grocery store ("Parking Stimulus," issue of Feb. 27).
But the parking plan is now held up in court, and the city is apparently able to avoid most of the layoffs despite the repeated warnings.
The city must enact a budget by May 31, which will give the city the required 30 days to implement the plan by fiscal year 2014, which begins July 1.
Convening in packed City Council chambers today, Cincinnati officials discussed the costs and benefits of the streetcar project in light of a $17.4 million budget gap revealed by the city administration on April 16. City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. said the project could and should be saved, but a minority of public speakers and some City Council members did not seem convinced.
To balance the budget
gap, Dohoney said the city would have to pull funds
from multiple sources. He said he will offer specifics in writing
tomorrow, which invoked verbal disappointment from officials who were expecting details at the meeting.
“I'm disappointed in this presentation,” said Councilman Chris Smitherman. “We're here today to hear how we're going to pay for it.”
The meeting, which was
called by Democratic Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls shortly
after the budget shortfall was announced, covered a presentation from Dohoney, comments from public speakers and City Council
questions to Dohoney. Despite expectations prior to the meeting, no specifics were given for closing the budget gap even after extensive questioning.
Dohoney did reveal the price tag for halting the streetcar project: $72 million. According to Dohoney, the project has already cost the city $19.7 million, and the city would have to spend another $14.2 million in close-out costs. Another $38.1 million in federal grants would have to be returned to the federal government.
Dohoney added that terminating the project would also reduce faith in Cincinnati’s competitiveness and ability to take on big development projects.
The budget gap was originally $22.7 million, but the city administration identified $5.3 million in potential cuts. Dohoney said further cuts would “alter the scope” of the project and push it into a “danger zone.”
The budget gap is a result of construction bids coming in $26 million to $43 million over budget. The lowest bid from Messer Construction, which came in $26 million over budget, has already expired, but Dohoney said the company is still willing to work on the streetcar project.
The city could rework the request for proposal for construction bids, but Dohoney said city officials and third-party experts agreed it’s unlikely that would effectively lower costs.
Throughout the meeting, streetcar opponents argued that the cost of the project is too high and the budget shortfall is proof the program is unsustainable.
Most of Dohoney’s presentation focused on the streetcar’s purpose. He said the streetcar would help drive
economic and population growth, which would then bring in more tax revenue to
help balance the city’s operating budget. That would represent a turnaround for Cincinnati, which has been steadily losing population since the 1950s during a period that has
coincided with disinvestment, urban flight and the dissolution of
the city’s old streetcar system.
Throughout his presentation, Dohoney cited multiple examples and studies that found streetcars can help grow local economies. He said the city has not pursued the streetcar because “it’s a cool thing to do,” but because it follows the expert advice given to city officials about what’s necessary to compete with other cities.
Dohoney’s argument was previously supported by HDR, which the city hired to do an economic impact study in 2007. HDR found major benefits to connecting Over-the-Rhine and the Central Business District, including travel cost savings, increased mobility for low-income individuals and economic development that would spur rising property values. The HDR study was entirely supported and echoed by a follow-up assessment from the University of Cincinnati.
Some critics have argued that the study is outdated because it was conducted before Over-the-Rhine’s recent revitalization, but Dohoney said there are still several hundred vacant buildings in the area, particularly north of Liberty Street.
The project has faced continued opposition from Democratic mayoral candidate John Cranley, Republicans and the conservative Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST). They say the project is too expensive and they’re skeptical of the economic growth being promised by city officials.
Opponents of the
streetcar have so far put the project on the ballot twice, but Cincinnati voters rejected the referendum efforts. Still, the streetcar may be on the ballot
again this year through the 2013 mayoral race between Democrats Cranley and Qualls (“Back
on the Ballot,”
issue of Jan. 23). Cranley opposes the streetcar, while Qualls supports it.
The streetcar project was originally supposed to receive $52 million in federal funds through the state government, but Republican Gov. John Kasich pulled the funds after he unseated Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland.
Beyond the financial cost, Dohoney pointed out Kasich’s decision raised concerns about the project’s feasibility among previous supporters, leading to more hurdles and delays. He said Duke Energy in particular began stalling efforts to move utility lines to accommodate for streetcar tracks because the company grew weary of the project’s prospects.
Duke’s reluctance led to a conflict with the city over who has to pay to move utility lines — a conflict Duke and the city agreed to resolve in court. While the court battles play out, the city set aside $15 million from the Blue Ash Airport deal to move utility lines, but city officials say they will get that money back if the courts side with the city.
The city originally expected $31 million in private funding for the streetcar project, but those expectations were dampened as a result of the Great Recession, which forced local companies to scale back private donations.
John Deatrick, the current project manager for The Banks, previously told CityBeat that it’s normal for large projects to deal with multiple hurdles. Deatrick, who the city wants to hire to manage the streetcar project, said, “Any time you try to build something — even out in the middle of a corn field — you’re going to have unexpected, unanticipated issues. ... These things happen, and that’s what project management is all about.”
Dohoney said the current phase of the streetcar project is only a starter line between Over-the-Rhine and Cincinnati’s business district, but city officials are already planning for a second line that would run up to the University of Cincinnati and hospitals in uptown. If Dohoney’s vision for the project were completed, streetcars would run on multiple lines all around the city, ranging from the Cincinnati Zoo to The Banks.
The streetcar budget debate comes amid another debate regarding a $35 million deficit in the city’s operating budget. Some streetcar opponents have tried to link the two issues, but the streetcar is funded through the capital budget, which cannot be used to balance the operating budget because of legal and traditional constraints.