Cincinnati's streetcar project is getting another $5 million in federal funding. But before the money is handed over, the city must first eliminate cost overruns that have recently put the project in danger.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood unveiled the news in a letter to Mayor Mark Mallory dated June 19. The letter acknowledges the project's recent cost overruns, but goes on to claim the federal government still backs the project.
"The DOT (Department of Transportation) continues to support your bold vision for economic development and enhanced transportation choices for the city of Cincinnati, and we believe that this project is a significant component of that vision. With that in mind, I want to provide up to $5 million in additional assistance from DOT," LaHood wrote.
But the money comes with two conditions: The city must first fix the streetcar project's cost overruns and restore certain aspects of the project, including a passenger information system and a screen or wall that would block power substations from public view.
The $5 million will be on top of the nearly $40 million the federal government has already contributed to the project through various grants and programs.
The funding bump comes just in time for City Council's Monday vote on the streetcar project's cost overruns.
In February, the city received construction bids that were $26 million to $43 million over budget, effectively leading to a $17.4 million budget gap and a $133 million overall cost for the project.
Since then, City Manager Milton Dohoney proposed a few fixes to City Council, including pulling funding from various capital projects and issuing more debt.
At the same time, Dohoney told City Council the city administration was working with federal officials to find opportunities for more federal funding. The new commitment is presumably the result of those discussions.
City Council is expected to vote on the budget fixes Monday. So far, council members Roxanne Qualls, Yvette Simpson, Wendell Young and Laure Quinlivan have vowed support, but Council will need a fifth vote — perhaps from Chris Seelbach or Pam Thomas — to pass the changes.
Read the full letter below:
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:
It might cost Cincinnati more to issue debt following a credit rating downgrade by Moody’s. In a report released on July 15, the credit ratings agency downgraded the city’s general bonds from Aa1 to Aa2 and revised the bonds’ outlook to “negative.”
“The negative outlook reflects the expectation that the city will continue to face challenges in attaining structurally balanced operations, stemming from its unfunded pension liabilities and reliance on a number of one-time budgetary solutions in recent years,” the report reads.
In a memo to the mayor and City Council, City Manager Milton Dohoney put the blame on Moody’s methodological changes that now account for state pension funds that Cincinnati has no direct control over. Specifically, Moody’s now looks at the state-managed Ohio Public Employees Retirement System (OPERS) and Ohio Police and Fire Retirement System (OP&F) when scoring Cincinnati, instead of just the Cincinnati Retirement System (CRS), which the city directly operates.
“It is important to note the Ohio Revised Code provides the percentage each employer pays into OPERS and OP&F as its contribution. The City has paid 100 (percent) of this contribution each year as required. The City has no ability to impact the unfunded liability of OPERS or OP&F,” Dohoney wrote in the memo.
Still, some of the blame lies on the city’s pension fund, which is lacking a long-term strategy for sustainability, according to Moody’s.
The CRS board is currently looking at scenarios to address the city’s long-term liabilities. Its next meeting is on Aug. 1, and it could produce changes that would be presented to City Council, according to the city manager’s memo.
The report also takes issue with the city’s repeated use of one-time sources to fix budget gaps. Since 2001, the city’s annual operating budgets have used one-time sources instead of achieving structural balance with long-term cuts and sources of revenue.
Critics argue the one-time sources only delay fiscal woes instead of permanently fixing the budget shortfalls. Supporters claim the one-time methods allow the city to balance its budget without taking austere measures that would lead to city layoffs and hurt growth while the economy is in recovery.
The report from Moody’s does give Cincinnati some good credit, citing a “pressured but still satisfactory financial position,” the recent stabilization of earnings taxes, financial flexibility provided by an available but untapped levy authority, the city’s economically diverse population and an above-average debt position.
Bonds are typically issued when the city needs a temporary infusion of funds for capital projects, such as the Cincinnati streetcar.
Updated with more context.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald is urging a coalition effort to begin a long, complicated petitioning process that could repeal some of the anti-abortion measures in the recently approved two-year state budget.
If the petitioning process is successful, it would force the Ohio General Assembly to consider repealing aspects of the budget that don’t involve appropriations of money. If the General Assembly changes, rejects or ignores the repeal proposal, it could be put on the ballot in November 2014.
FitzGerald is jump-starting the repeal effort through a new website, Ohioans Fight Back.
Speaking at a press conference Thursday, FitzGerald also questioned the constitutionality of some of the anti-abortion measures, particularly those that require doctors give certain medical information regarding abortions and restrict publicly funded rape crisis centers from discussing abortion as a viable option. He said such rules might violate free speech rights.
The state budget effectively defunds contraceptive care and other non-abortion services at various family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood. It also makes it more difficult for abortion clinics to establish mandatory patient transfer agreements with hospitals.
The budget provides separate federal funding to crisis pregnancy centers, which act as the pro-abstinence, anti-abortion alternatives to comprehensive clinics like Planned Parenthood.
The budget also gives money to rape crisis centers, but centers that take public funding are barred from discussing abortion as a viable option with rape victims.
Days before the budget’s passage, Republican legislators also added an amendment that forces women to get an ultrasound prior to getting an abortion. As part of the amendment, doctors are required to inform the patient if a heartbeat is detected during the ultrasound and provide an estimate of the fetus’s chances of making it to birth.
FitzGerald, who’s currently Cuyahoga County executive,
plans to run against Republican Gov. John Kasich in 2014.
Kasich signed the controversial state budget with the anti-abortion measures on June 30, despite calls for the governor to use his line-item veto powers — a move that would have kept the rest of the budget in place but repealed the anti-abortion provisions.
CityBeat analyzed the state budget in further detail here.
Two Ohio senators, including Senate Minority Leader Eric Kearney of Cincinnati, are pushing a bill that will require the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles to grant driver’s licenses to the children of illegal immigrants. The senators claim state BMV offices are inconsistently applying President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows the children of illegal immigrants to remain in the country without fear of prosecution, but the Ohio Department of Public Safety says the issue is still under review. CityBeat originally broke the story after hearing of Ever Portillo’s experiences at a Columbus BMV office here, and a follow-up story covered the internal conflict at the BMV over the issue here.
Ohio officials have said the state has only put $1 million toward JobsOhio, but records recently acquired by The Columbus Dispatch show $5.3 million in funding has been directed to the program
so far, and the public investment could be as high as $9 million. State
officials said the funding is necessary because constitutional
challenges, which the Ohio Supreme Court recently agreed to take up,
have held up the program’s original source of funding — state liquor
profits. JobsOhio is a nonprofit company established with the support of
Gov. John Kasich that’s meant to attract investment and bring jobs to
the state. Kasich says he wants to replace the Ohio Department of Development with the nonprofit company in the future.
City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee approved a plan to lease Cincinnati’s parking assets to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority in a 4-3 vote yesterday, but the plan will require five votes to become law in a final City Council vote tomorrow. The plan, which CityBeat previously covered, would lease the city’s parking assets to fund development projects, including a 30-story tower and a downtown grocery store, and help balance the deficit. The deal would produce a $92 million upfront payment, and the city projects that additional annual installments would generate more than $263 million throughout the lease’s duration. Critics are worried the city will give up too much control of its parking assets as part of the deal, and concerns about the city’s long-term deficits remain. The alternatives — plans B, C and S — would fix structural deficit problems, while the budget only helps balance the deficit for the next two fiscal years.
The company that will operate Cincinnati’s parking meters if the parking deal is approved by City Council had problems in the past, according to a tip received by multiple news outlets from Tabitha Woodruff, an advocate at Ohio Public Interest Research Group. The issues surfaced years before Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) was bought by Xerox in 2010, and Xerox now denies any wrongdoing. One of the issues is a 2007 audit, which found ACS mismanaged parking meters in Washington, D.C. Kevin Lightfoot, a spokesperson at Xerox, says the audit was based on “faulty information,” and a lot of the problems found were because the auditor improperly read parking meter screen displays.
An approved commitment by the Hamilton County Transportation Improvement District (HCTID) may ensure a rail service is ready for Cincinnati in time for the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune is pushing for local and state governments to break down any barriers for Oasis Rail Transit, which will carry passengers from Downtown to Milford.
The Ohio Board of Education will decide between two candidates for state superintendent next week: acting Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Sawyers or Dick Ross, Gov. John Kasich’s top education adviser.
After years of development and anticipation, Cincinnati’s Horseshoe Casino opened yesterday. The casino comes with the promise of jobs and economic development, but it also poses the risk of crime, bankruptcy and even suicide. State and local legislators are also looking forward to extra government revenue from the casino, even though casino revenue around the state has fallen short of projections. For Over-the-Rhine residents, the grand opening, which culminated in a fireworks display, was sort of like being in the middle of a thunderstorm.
Livability.com named Cincinnati the No. 10 spring break destination because of the Cincinnati Zoo, Botanical Garden, IKEA, Cincinnati Art Museum, the 21c Museum Hotel, Newport Aquarium and the Clifton Cultural Arts Center, among other places and family-friendly activities.
Science doesn’t want pregnant women to be capable of anything.
Here are two pictures of Venus from Saturn’s view.
City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee today approved a
plan to lease Cincinnati’s parking assets to the Port of Greater
Cincinnati Development Authority in a 4-3 vote, but the plan will require five votes to become law in a final City Council vote on March 6.
Council members Roxanne Qualls, Yvette Simpson, Cecil Thomas and Wendell Young voted for the plan, and council members Chris Seelbach, Chris Smitherman and Charlie Winburn voted against it. Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld was absent, and Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan abstained, although she said she could vote yes if she sees more details about how the city will curb its long-term budget problems.
The plan, which CityBeat previously covered (“Parking Stimulus,” issue of Feb. 27), would lease the city’s parking assets to fund development projects, including a 30-story tower and a downtown grocery store, and help balance the deficit for the next two fiscal years. The deal would produce a $92 million upfront payment, and the city projects that additional annual installments would generate more than $263 million throughout the lease’s duration.
Before the vote, several City Council members said the parking plan would not solve Cincinnati’s structural deficit problems, but City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. said the plan would help reduce the deficit by generating recurring revenues through long-term economic growth and development.
“The situation that we’re in requires that we accelerate
growth right now, not later,” he said. “If we do not do that, then we’re going to
have further negative ramifications to deal with.”
Still, Dohoney admitted the plan would not solve all the city’s budget woes — just like he has repeatedly said in the past. Even with the parking plan, the city projects a $10 million deficit in 2014, $15.5 million deficit in 2015 and $20 million deficit in 2016.
The council members insisted there are alternatives to the parking plan and Dohoney’s Plan B, which would lay off 344 employees, eliminate Human Services Funding and close pools and recreation centers, among other changes.
On March 1, Seelbach proposed Plan S, which would not lease the city’s parking assets to balance the budget and would instead use $7.5 million in casino revenue, cut $5 million based on the results of the city's priority-driven budgeting and allow voters to choose between a $10-per-month trash fee or a 2-percent increase in the city's admissions tax.
On the same day as the hearings, Winburn, the sole Republican on City Council, proposed Plan C, which would reduce city employees’ salaries across the board — with exemptions for police, ﬁre, health, garbage, recreation, parks and road paving — and use casino and parking revenue to clear the deficit.
At the City Council hearings, Quinlivan listed a few other
possibilities, including sharing public safety services with other
local communities. She also advised the city to put together a long-term deficit reduction plan. “We don’t want to kick the can down the road any more,” she said.
Thomas suggested putting an earnings tax hike of 0.1 percent or 0.2 percent on the ballot. He said, “It would solve this (deficit) problem once and for all.”
Some council members also raised concerns about the release of bond documents, which will further detail the framework of the parking agreement. Dohoney and Laura Brunner, president of the Port Authority, said the bond documents have not been crafted because a lease agreement has to be approved by City Council first, but the documents will be made public once they are put together.
Before the final committee vote, Smitherman successfully
motioned to separate part of the parking plan from the budget, which opens the plan to referendum. The motion was in response to City Solicitor
John Curp, who said appropriation ordinances, or ordinances that are essentially budgets, aren’t subject to
referendum, according to state law.
Metal detectors could come back to City Hall, but local legislators can’t do much more regarding local gun control. Still, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and other City Council members will begin pushing for more federal regulations on guns starting today. President Barack Obama is already beginning to drum up support for more regulations on guns, including a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. He also wants to close a loophole that allows people to buy firearms at gun shows without background checks. At the state level, a new bill loosening gun regulations in Ohio is facing criticism. The bill will make it easier to store firearms in cars and allows them for the first time in parking garages under the Ohio Statehouse and a nearby office tower. Gov. John Kasich said he will sign the bill.
The University of Cincinnati is launching a fundraising effort for the renovation of Nippert Stadium. The project could cost as much as $70 million. The university wants to offset as much of the cost as possible to build premium seating, with the possibility of 28 new luxury boxes and more than 1,400 premium seats being added. Goals could change based on demand and fundraising efforts.
A Cincinnati-based company and its top executive have pleaded guilty to circumventing Ohio’s competitive bid process. The actions cost Ohio taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars,
according to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. The company circumvented
the competitive process by submitting multiple bids on road jobs under
different names, creating the illusion of competition.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible candidate for the presidency in 2016, will headline a Hamilton County GOP event. He will be a featured speaker next month at the Northeast Hamilton County Republican Club's annual pancake breakfast.
The Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy failed to follow its own compensation policies, resulting in improper over-payments of $2,325, according to Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost.
Top state officials will begin pushing and outlining school safety efforts in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
State Impact Ohio has a fantastic infographic showing the growth of charter schools in Ohio. In the Cincinnati urban district, charter schools now host 6,642 students.
A new state policy will automatically refund businesses when they’ve overpaid their taxes. The first round of the policy will refund businesses in Ohio $13 million.
The animal takeover continues. Due to the effects of climate change, some animals are moving into cities.
Today is the end of the world. Whatever. Life sucks anyway.
Ohio’s unemployment rate dropped from 6.9 percent to 6.8 percent in November. Gains were concentrated in trade, transportation, and utilities, financial activities and educational and health services, with losses in construction, leisure and hospitality, government, professional and business services and information services. Overall, the state’s non-agricultural wage and salary employment increased by 1,600.
But could the recovery last? U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is now ditching efforts to avoid the fiscal cliff, a series of spending cuts and tax hikes set to kick in at the end of the year. Boehner could not get Republicans to vote on a tax hike for people making more than $1 million a year, which isn’t even enough to make President Barack Obama’s demand of increased taxes on anyone making more than $400,000. If the United States goes over the fiscal cliff, the spending cuts and tax hikes will likely devastate the economy. CityBeat wrote about U.S. Congress’ inability to focus on jobs here.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich finished the lame-duck session by signing 42 bills into law. The laws include loosened restrictions on gun control, an update to Ohio’s education rating system and $4.4 million in appropriations. The loosened gun control law in particular is getting criticized from Democrats in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre. The law allows guns in the Ohio Statehouse garage, loosens concealed carry rules and changes the definition of an unloaded gun so gun owners can have loaded clips in cars as long as they are stored separately from guns. CityBeat wrote about the need for more gun control in this week’s commentary.
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters suggested arming teachers to avoid school shootings, but a considerable amount of research shows that doesn’t work. Cincinnati Police Chief James Craig says arming teachers is a bad idea: “Certainly we can look at other options, but when you talk about arming school teachers or a school administrator without the appropriate training, and training is not just going to a target range and being able to hit center mass. How do you deal with a crisis? We're talking about a place with children.” Craig is now pushing crisis training as a major initiative.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rob Portman says school shootings need a holistic approach. The Ohio Republican says he will consider further restrictions on guns and armed school officials.
It seems a housing recovery is well underway. Cincinnati home sales are showing no signs of a slowdown.
Cincinnati is getting six historic preservation tax credits from the state government. As part of the ninth round of the program, the Ohio Development Services Agency is giving the city credits for parts of Main Street, parts of East 12th Street, parts of East McMillan Street, Abington Flats, Eden Park Pump Station and Pendleton Apartments.
The U.S. Department of Education is looking into whether Ohio charter schools discriminate against students with disabilities. Overall, charter schools in the state enroll as many students with disabilities as traditional public schools, but students with disabilities are concentrated in a few charter schools.
A federal judge upheld Ohio’s exotic animal law, which restricts who can own the animals in the state.
Judith French, a Republican, will replace retiring Justice Evelyn Stratton on the Ohio Supreme Court. Gov. Kasich’s appointment of French keeps the court’s makeup of six Republicans and one Democrat.
Genetics is perfecting the Christmas tree.
From the Twilight Zone archives comes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Christmas special.
In a party line 23-10 vote today, the Republican-controlled Ohio Senate approved a $61 billion budget plan for fiscal years
2014 and 2015 that takes multiple measures against legal
abortions, aims to cut taxes for small businesses and partly restores education funding cut in the previous 2012-2013 budget.
The budget plan gives a large amount of attention to
social issues, particularly abortion. Most recently, the Ohio Senate added an amendment that could be used by the director of the Ohio Department of Health to close down abortion clinics.
The amendment bans abortion clinics from establishing transfer agreements with public hospitals, forcing the clinics to make such agreements with private hospitals,
which are often religious and could refuse to deal with abortion clinics. Under the amendment, if the clinics can’t reach a transfer agreement, the state health director is given the power to shut them down.
Abortion rights groups claim the amendment will likely be used to shut down abortion clinics or force them to dissolve their abortion services.
The bill also makes changes to family services funding that effectively defund Planned Parenthood, a family planning services provider that is often criticized by conservatives for offering abortion services, even though it does so exclusively through private donations.
The bill also redirects some federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to crisis pregnancy centers, which effectively act as the anti-abortion alternative to comprehensive family planning service providers like Planned Parenthood.
The changes continue a conservative push on social issues that began in the Ohio House budget (“The Chastity Bunch,” issue of April 24).
Supporters praise the bill for “protecting life” and promoting “chastity” and “abstinence,” but critics are pushing back.
“Today the Ohio Senate turned its back on the health care needs of Ohio’s women and paved the way for family planning centers and abortion clinics to be closed across the state. If Gov. (John) Kasich doesn’t remove these provisions from the budget, the unintended pregnancy rate will rise, cancer will go undetected and women who need abortion care will not have safe, legal facilities to turn to in some communities,” said Kellie Copeland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, in a statement. “This budget will put the lives of thousands of Ohio women at risk if Gov. Kasich fails to line-item veto these dangerous measures.”The Ohio Senate plan also scraps Ohio House plans to cut income taxes for all Ohioans by 7 percent and instead aims to cut taxes for small businesses by 50 percent.
Republicans claim the tax cut will help small businesses, which they call the state’s “job creators.” But conservative and liberal groups have criticized the plan.
Given that, Zach Schiller, research director at Policy Matters, says the plan will do little for Ohio’s economy.
“The fastest growing small businesses are not making money because they’re investing heavily in their operations — in marketing, research and sales,” Schiller says. “So if they’re making anything, they’re investing it by and large in the business, so they’re not likely to be able to benefit very much from this.”
He adds, “Meanwhile, you’re going to have passive investors who have no role in adding employees and partners in law firms, architecture firms, accounting firms and other kinds of professional organizations who will personally benefit from this in a way that I think is unlikely to generate more employment.”
Instead of focusing on tax cuts, Schiller argues the state should be increasing direct investments, particularly in education and human services.
“This is bad policy, and many supporters are errantly pushing it under the guise of putting more money in the hands of ‘job-creators.’ But this is based on a flawed understanding of what creates jobs,” wrote Scott Drenkard of the Tax Foundation. “The businesses that actually create jobs are not small businesses or big businesses; they are businesses that are growing. And that type of business is virtually impossible to target with a tax incentive.”
The budget plan restores about $717 million in education funding, but that’s not enough to outweigh the $1.8 billion in education funding that was cut in the 2012-2013 budget, which Kasich and the Republican-controlled legislature approved in 2011.
The education funding increases will disproportionately favor the state’s property-wealthiest districts — effectively giving the biggest funding increases to school districts that can already afford to raise more money by leveraging high local property values.
The chart shows only 15 percent of funding increases will go to the property-poorest one-third of school districts, while a vast majority of the increases will go to the property-wealthiest one-third.
Health care advocates were also disappointed to see the Ohio Senate pass on a federally funded Medicaid expansion, which would allow anyone at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level — $15,856 for a single-person household and $32,499 for a family of four — to enroll in the government-backed health care program.
Kasich proposed expanding Medicaid in his original budget plan (“Smoke and Mirrors,” issue of Feb. 20), but Ohio legislators are skeptical of the expansion’s consequences.
As part of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), the Medicaid expansion would be fully financed by the federal government for the first three years. After that, federal payments would be phased down to capture 90 percent of the expansion, where federal funding would permanently remain.
Republican legislators, backed by Republican State Treasurer Josh Mandel, are skeptical the federal government can afford the expansion. There’s no historical precedent for the federal government failing to meet its obligations to Medicaid, but Republican legislators argue there’s also no historical precedent for the federal government backing such large Medicaid expansions across the nation.
A Health Policy Institute of Ohio study found the Medicaid expansion would save the state $1.8 billion and insure nearly half a million Ohioans over the next decade.
The budget also fails to restore local government funding cuts that have been carried out during Kasich’s time in office. In comparison to fiscal years 2010 and 2011, local governments are receiving about 50 percent less aid from the state, leading to $22.2 million less funds for Cincinnati on an annual basis (“Enemy of the State,” issue of March 20).
When asked to explain the various cuts to education and local government funding in the 2012-2013 budget, Kasich spokesperson Rob Nichols told CityBeat in September 2012, “The reality is we walked into an $8 billion budget deficit. … We had to fix that.”
The Ohio legislature and Kasich must agree on a budget plan in time for a June 30 deadline.
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.