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.
It's the 1980s and '90s all over again in Cincinnati.
In a blatant attempt to do an end-run around the mayor, four members of Cincinnati City Council met with The Enquirer's editorial board today to unveil a budget-cutting plan that includes merging the city's Police Department with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
The council faction hadn't discussed the far-reaching concept previously with Mayor Mark Mallory or City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. but had held discussions with Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. about the idea.
In a presentation to City Council Feb. 19, City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. unveiled an unexpected parking proposal that will solve a $25.8 million budget deficit for the 2014 fiscal year and avoid full privatization. The 30-year plan will also put more than $100 million toward economic development in the city.
The plan involves teaming up with the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority and some private operators to manage and modernize Cincinnati’s parking assets. Dohoney called it a “public-public partnership” that will allow Cincinnati to keep control over rates, operation hours and the placement of meters.
The money raised by the plan will be used for multiple development projects around the city, including the I-71/MLK Interchange, Tower Place Mall and a high-rise that will house a downtown grocery store.
The new parking plan will cap rate increases at 3 percent or the cost of living, with any increases coming in 25-cent increments. Private operators will not be allowed to change operation hours, but hours will be initially expanded to 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. downtown and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in neighborhoods.
The proposal will not immediately increase downtown’s $2-an-hour rates, but it will increase all neighborhood parking meters to 75 cents an hour. Afterward, the rate cap will make it so downtown rates can only be increased every four years and neighborhood rates can only be increased every 10 to 11 years.
But the rate hikes will only come after technological improvements are made to parking meters. The new meters will allow users to pay with a smartphone, which will enable remote payment without walking back to the meter. After the plan’s 30 years are up, parking assets will be returned to the city with all the new technological upgrades, according to Dohoney.
Some critics were originally concerned that private operators will aggressively enforce parking rules to run bigger profits, but Dohoney said enforcement standards will remain the same.
Enforcement will be done through booting instead of towing, according to the plan. Booting will only be used after the accumulation of three unpaid parking tickets, which is similar to how towing works today. The boots will be automatically removed once the tickets are paid, which will be possible to do remotely through a smartphone.
The plan, which is a tax-exempt bond deal, will provide the city with $92 million upfront cash and $3 million in annual installments after that, although the city manager said the yearly payments will increase over time. The city originally promised $7 million a year from the deal, but Dohoney said estimates had to be brought down as more standards and limitations were attached to address expressed concerns.
The money will first be used to pay for a $25.8 million deficit in the 2014 fiscal year. Another $6.3 million will be set aside for the working cap reserve and $20.9 million will be put in a reserve to pay for a projected deficit in the 2015 fiscal year.
The rest of the funds will be used for economic development. About $20 million will go to the I-71/MLK Interchange, which would match $40 million from the state. The project is estimated to create $750 million in economic impact, with $460 million of that impact in Hamilton County. Dohoney says the economic impact will create 5,900 to 7,300 permanent jobs, and ultimately bring in $33 million in earnings taxes, which means the plan will eventually pay for itself. He also says the funding from the parking deal will allow the city and state to complete the project within two to three years, instead of the seven to 10 years it would take if the city waited for support from the federal government.
If the state does not agree to take up the I-71/MLK Interchange project, Dohoney promised a “mega job deal” that will create 2,500 jobs.
With $12 million for development and $82 million in leveraged funds, the city will also take on massive development projects downtown. Tower Place Mall will undergo a massive conversion. The city will also tear down Pogue’s Garage at Fourth and Race streets and replace it with a 30-floor high-rise that will include 300 luxury apartments, 1,000 parking spaces and a grocery store.
The plan will also use $3 million for the Wasson Line right-of-way and $4 million for the next phase of Smale Riverfront Park, which should be completed in time for the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
AEW, Xerox, Denison and Guggenheim will partner with the city and Port Authority for the plan. AEW will manage assets, Xerox will handle parking operations and on-street spaces, Denison will operate off-street spaces and manage facilities and equipment and Guggenheim will act as underwriter and capital provider.
After the City Council hearing, Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld released a statement that raised concerns about expanded meter operation hours, which Sittenfeld fears could burden certain neighborhoods. He also pointed out the plan will not fix Cincinnati’s long-term structural deficit problems. Still, he said the local Port Authority’s management could make the plan “worthy of support.”
Sittenfeld has been skeptical of the parking plan since it was first announced in October. In the past, he warned privatization could cause parking rates to skyrocket. ©
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One of the most common complaints among many residents over the decades is that Big Business controls City Hall and municipal government, not citizens. Although some officials have denied it, that seems to be the case when it comes to who will be the next city councilperson.
During an election year, city council and the mayor member profess to care about the most vulnerable in our society, but their actions are speaking much louder than words. Mayor Mark Mallory allowed a city budget proposal to go forward that would have eliminated all human services funding and the meager investment was only restored after groups like the YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter and the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless organized strong and vocal opposition and the money was restored.
At least three of Cincinnati City Council’s four new members will appear at a meet-and-greet event next week in Price Hill to answer questions.
Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson and P.G. Sittenfeld are scheduled to attend the Jan. 5 forum, which will be held at Elder Hill School’s Schaeper Center. It’s uncertain at this time whether the fourth and final new council member, Christopher Smitherman, will attend.