Supporters of the $133 million streetcar project on Thursday night packed Mercantile Library and Fountain Square to start a two-week campaign that seeks to prevent the incoming mayor and City Council from canceling the ongoing project.
Turnout was particularly strong as supporters reached the 200-person capacity at Mercantile Library before the event started. Another 200 watched the event from the Jumbotron screen at Fountain Square, according to the event's organizers.
In attendance were several Over-the-Rhine business owners and residents; council members P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young; and several supporters of the project from around the city.
The goal of the event was to organize supporters and begin a lobbying campaign to convince the three perceived swing votes in the incoming council — Sittenfeld, David Mann and Kevin Flynn — to support continuing the project. All three have spoken against the streetcar in the past, but they told CityBeat they want to fully account for the project's cancellation costs, completion costs and potential return on investment before making a final decision.
Speakers urged supporters to contact the nine newly elected council members and raise awareness about the streetcar's benefits before Mayor-elect John Cranley, who opposes the streetcar project, and the new City Council take office in December.
Ryan Messer, a lead organizer of the effort to save the streetcar, spoke about the advantages of the streetcar project for much of the event. "This is a good economic tool that helps all of Cincinnati," he repeatedly stated.
Supporters have some empirical evidence to base their claims on. A 2007 study from consulting firm HDR found the streetcar project would generate a 2.7-to-1 return on investment over 35 years. The HDR study was later evaluated and supported by the University of Cincinnati.
Project executive John Deatrick acknowledges the 2007 study is now outdated and the city is working on updating the numbers. But he says the streetcar project is supposed to be viewed as an economic development vehicle, not just another transit option.
Supporters also warned of the potential costs of canceling the streetcar project. Hours before the gathering, Mayor Mark Mallory released a letter from the Federal Transit Administration that explicitly stated the city would lose nearly $41 million in federal grant dollars if the project were canceled, and another $4 million would be placed in the hands of Gov. John Kasich to do as he sees fit.
City spokesperson Meg Olberding previously told CityBeat that the city already spent about $2 million of the federal funds. If the project were canceled, she says the money would have to be repaid through the operating budget that funds police, firefighters and human services instead of the capital budget currently financing the streetcar project.
The operating budget has been structurally imbalanced since 2001, so adding millions in costs to it could force the city to cut services or raise taxes.
The FTA letter might already be playing an influence for at least one of the swing votes on City Council. On the elevator ride up to Mercantile Library, Sittenfeld told Seelbach and CityBeat, "I will say that today's news is a big gain in the pro-streetcar column."
Another threat for the city is potential litigation from contractors, subcontractors, taxpayers and Over-the-Rhine residents and businesses who invested in the project or along the streetcar line with the expectation that the project would be completed.
Litigation costs would also come out of the operating budget, according to Olberding.
"As a trial lawyer, this is actually appealing," said Democratic attorney Don Mooney. "For the city, not so much."
Supporters also outlined the potential damage that pulling from the project could do to the city's image, given that developers, businesses and the federal government have put their support and dollars toward the streetcar.
"Is Cincinnati that city that will dine you and wine you and leave you alone at the altar?" Young asked.
But if the lobbying effort, cancellation costs and threat of litigation aren't enough, supporters also presented one more option to save the streetcar: a ballot initiative. Mayor-elect John Cranley on Thursday told The Cincinnati Enquirer that he would be open to allowing some sort of streetcar referendum on the ballot.
The ultimate goal for supporters of the streetcar, beyond ensuring sustainable growth in the urban core, is to connect all of Cincinnati through a vast transit network, much like the streetcar lines that ran through Cincinnati before the city government dismantled the old system in the 1950s.
That provides little assurance to opponents of the streetcar project. Cranley and at least three hard-liners in the incoming City Council — Amy Murray, Charlie Winburn and Christopher Smitherman — claim the project is too expensive and the wrong priority for Cincinnati. Discussing more phases makes the project appear even costlier to opponents who are already concerned with costs.
In its comprehensive plan for 2040, the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments put the cost of various extensions — to the University of Cincinnati and surrounding hospitals, the Cincinnati Zoo, the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Broadway Commons area near the Horseshoe Casino — at more than $191 million, or $58 million more than the estimated cost for the current phase.
But if Cincinnati never completes the first phase of the streetcar project, supporters say it could be decades before other light rail options are considered.
A forum is planned to question Cincinnati City Council candidates on issues involving “green” building techniques, making the city more sustainable and other environmental topics.
The event, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 12 in the rear stage area at the Northside Tavern, 4163 Hamilton Ave. Before the forum begins, a networking session with candidates will be held at 5 p.m.
A community group known for its controversial and antagonistic tactics is asking other neighborhood organizations to take a vote on whether they support Cincinnati's proposed streetcar project.
In a recent e-mail sent to leaders of the city's network of neighborhood councils, John Sess, president of the Westwood Civic Association, wants to gauge sentiment about the project. Sess states he will be "keeping tracks of the results," presumably to lobby city officials to reconsider the project.
A Charter Committee leader says the group wasn't aware that one of its endorsed candidates — who also happens to be a Charter board member — was seeking the Democratic Party's endorsement.
But Charter chairwoman Dawn Denno said Yvette Simpson, the board member who's running for Cincinnati City Council this fall, won't have to give up her Charter endorsement. Simpson can remain cross-endorsed in the race because she first sought Charter's endorsement, Denno added.
The man that some City Council members want to put in control of policing in Cincinnati once blamed liberal judges, feminists, atheists, civil libertarians, and gays and lesbians as responsible for crime in U.S. society.
Cincinnati officials spent five years and millions of dollars trying to improve police-community relations in the wake of the 2001 riots, as part of a series of reforms mandated by a federal court that became known as the Collaborative Agreement. Now some of the people involved in that process are worried that a proposal to abolish the local Police Department and contract services to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office could jeopardize the progress.
Some rank-and-file Democrats — including a few Democratic candidates for Cincinnati City Council — are angry with first-time contender Laure Quinlivan’s campaigning tactics, and are letting the party’s chairman know.
Quinlivan’s detractors dislike her public criticism of other Democratic incumbents on council, as well as her recommendation for voters to use “bullet voting” so their choices have more impact.
As Laketa Cole prepares to leave Cincinnati City Council for a state government job, sources say she’s settled on Wendell Young as her replacement.
Multiple sources at City Hall and within the Democratic Party are talking about Young’s apparent selection and expressing surprise because he has ran unsuccessfully in three City Council elections and finished in 14th place in 2009’s balloting for the nine council seats, behind fellow Democrats Greg Harris (10th) and Bernadette Watson (11th).
It was the first opportunity council members had to publicly question the budget’s architects. The proposed budget would cover the first half of 2013. The city is switching over to a fiscal year starting in July.
Many council members expressed concern over the plan to use $21 million from a proposed 30-year lease of the city’s parking meters, garages and lots to help close a $34 million budget deficit.
“It seems like … the city budget wins, but the citizens are losing,” said Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.
City Manager Milton Dohoney said the parking facilities net Cincinnati about $7 million a year. That would equal out to about $210 million over 30 years.
Sittenfeld called into question the wisdom of leasing the facilities for an estimated $50 million and taking half of the profit, for an earnings of about $150 million over 30 years.
Other council members expressed concern that whoever leased the parking would hike rates, something Councilman Cecil Thomas dismissed.
“The market would dictate the rates that are charged,” he said.
Dohoney said a combination of cuts, savings, revenue, projected growth and one-time funding sources helped eliminate the $34 million deficit. He said a budget containing only cuts would result in the layoff of 344 city workers.
A slide show provided by the city showed that 802 positions had been cut since 2000.
Dohoney advocated eliminating the property tax rollback promised as part of the deal to build two new sports stadiums in 1996. He said it would bring in about $9 million a year. However council has had little appetite to allow any increase in taxes as the city recovers from the Great Recession. Property taxes make up about 6 percent of the budget fund used to pay most of the city's operating expenses.
The cuts proposed in the 2013 budget include eliminating
support for public access company Media Bridges, the Downtown and
Neighborhood Gateways Program, Juvenile Firesetter Program and Arts
It would also eliminate the Cincinnati Police Department’s Mounted Patrol, which covers downtown on horseback. Dohoney said that would allow Cincinnati Police Chief James Craig to redeploy those nine officers elsewhere. Dohoney said Craig had asked for a new recruit class of 50, but Dohoney requested 30. He said the additional nine from the horse patrol would bring that closer to 40.
Dohoney said he was also allowing 10 additional recruits to cover patrols of University Hospital, which is no longer going to use University of Cincinnati police starting Jan. 1.
He said the police department would also look for ways to save money by increasing the involvement of civilian members who could do things like take reports of non-injury car accidents.
Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan asked if the budgeteers had considered restructuring the police force to save money. She has long been a proponent of “right-sizing” the police and fire forces, saying staffing levels remain at a high while the city’s population is shrinking.
The proposed budget also includes investments in business groups that promote economic development, like the Port Authority, Greater Cincinnati Partnership, Film Commission and African American Chamber of Commerce.
Councilman Chris Seelbach praised Dohoney and his budget team, saying he saw Cincinnati as being better off than it had been six years ago. But he also said he’d like to see the administration focus on people who are barely getting by instead of businesses and developers.
“There is a focus on helping people make more money that are already making a lot of money,” Seelbach said. “Helping people that aren’t paying a lot of taxes still pay very little.”
Cincinnatians can weigh in on the budget in a public hearing Thursday evening at 6 p.m.
Councilman Chris Seelbach on Oct. 3 announced another concession in the ongoing city-county dispute over contracting rules for the jointly operated Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD).
At the heart of the issue is a federal mandate requiring Cincinnati to retrofit and revamp its sewer system. The project is estimated to cost $3.2 billion over 15 years, making it the largest infrastructure undertaking in the city’s history.
But Hamilton County commissioners have put most of the project on hold until the county resolves its conflict with City Council, which unanimously passed in June 2012 and modified in May “responsible bidder” rules that dictate how MSD contractors should train their employees.
Critics say the law’s apprenticeship program and pre-apprenticeship fund requirements put too much of a burden on nonunion businesses. Supporters claim the requirements help create local jobs and train local workers.
The city law requires bidders to follow specific standards for apprenticeship programs, which are used by unionized and nonunion businesses to teach an employee in a certain craft, such as plumbing or construction. It also asks contractors to put 10 cents for each hour of labor into a pre-apprenticeship fund that will help teach applicants in different crafts.
The concession announced on Oct. 3 would replace a mandate with an incentive program.
The mandate tasked contract bidders to prove their apprenticeship programs have graduated at least one person a year for the five previous years.
The incentive program would strip the mandate and replace it with “bid credits,” which would essentially give a small advantage to bidders who prove their apprenticeship programs are graduating employees. That advantage would be weighed along with many other factors that go into the city’s evaluation of bidders.
Seelbach says the concession will be the sixth the city has given to the county, compared to the county’s single concession.
The city has already added several exemptions to its rules, including one for small businesses and another for all contracts under $400,000, which make up half of MSD contracts. The city also previously loosened safety training requirements and other apprenticeship rules.
Meanwhile, the county has merely agreed to require state-certified apprenticeship programs, although with no specific standards like the city’s.
The five-year graduation requirement was the biggest sticking point in the city-county dispute. It’s now up to commissioners to decide whether the concession is enough to let MSD work go forward. If not, the dispute could end up in court as the federal government demands its mandate be met.