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by German Lopez 09.23.2013
Posted In: News, Development, City Council at 03:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
roxanne qualls

Qualls Unveils ‘Come Home Cincinnati’ Initiative

Plan addresses blight and abandonment in eight Cincinnati neighborhoods

Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority and community partners on Monday unveiled the “Come Home Cincinnati” initiative, which promises to make vacant properties available to new occupants in an effort to increase homeownership and redevelop neighborhoods hit hardest by vacancy and abandonment.

The goal is to establish a residential base that will help jumpstart private redevelopment and revitalize largely abandoned areas of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Just about a year ago, we were in Evanston to talk about their housing strategy for the Woodburn Avenue corridor and what to do about the 200 vacant and abandoned properties in the community,” Qualls said in a statement. “The next logical step on the path to revitalization is to incentivize private market investment in the residential core of our neighborhoods and help to fill the once-abandoned homes with new owner-occupants.”

The initiative will work through the Hamilton County Land Bank, private lenders and community development corporations to connect potential homeowners with a pool of loan guarantees.

Qualls’ office says the plan will likely require tapping into the city’s Focus 52 fund, which finances neighborhood projects.

The Port Authority estimates the loan guarantee pool will be $2.5 million to $4.5 million and other aspects of the initiative will cost $3.3 million, but not all of the funding will come from the city.

To qualify for the program, owner-occupants will have to meet minimum credit requirements, agree to live in the rehabilitated home for five years and pay for 5 percent of the total rehabilitation and acquisition costs as a down payment. After five years, the loan will be refinanced at the same or better interest rates to relinquish the city and its partners’ loan guarantee.

The city is eyeing a few potential partners for the initiative, including the Cincinnati Development Fund, Cincinnati Preservation Association, the University of Cincinnati Urban Design Center and neighborhood-specific groups.

The initiative will start with 100 homes in the pilot neighborhoods of Evanston and Walnut Hills, but it will expand to Avondale, College Hill, Madisonville, Northside, Price Hill and South Cumminsville as resources grow. It will work in conjunction with the Moving Ohio Forward demolition grant program, which allows the city and Hamilton County Land Bank to tear down blighted and vacant buildings.

At the same time, three of the neighborhoods — College Hill, Madisonville and Walnut Hills — are currently trying out form-based code, a special kind of zoning code championed by Qualls that allows developers to more easily pursue projects as long as they stay within a neighborhood’s established goals.

City Council will now need to approve a motion that gives the city administration 60 days to develop a plan and budget for the initiative. The city administration’s proposal will also require City Council approval.

 
 
by German Lopez 09.20.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Budget at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)
 
 
city hall

City Administration Defends Car Allowances

Restorations would subsidize car use for mayor, city manager, other directors

Just a few months after the city avoided laying off cops, firefighters and other city employees, City Manager Milton Dohoney on Sept. 15 proposed restoring $26,640 in vehicle allowances that would subsidize car use for the city manager, the mayor and other director-level positions in the city administration.

City spokesperson Meg Olberding told CityBeat that restoring the allowances is a matter of basic fairness and keeping both the city’s word and competitiveness.

Olberding says car allowances are typically part of compensation packages offered in other cities that compete with Cincinnati for recruitment. The allowances, she explains, were also promised to city directors as part of their pay packages when they were first hired for the job.

“Cutting it reneges on their original offer and part of the pretense under which they took the job,” Olberding says, adding that failing to restore the compensation promises could make future potential hires reluctant to work in Cincinnati.

But given Cincinnati’s ongoing budget problems, some council members say the proposal is out of touch.

“Are you kidding me?” asked Councilman Chris Seelbach at the Sept. 16 Budget and Finance Committee meeting. “I just question the judgment of an administration that would make that kind of recommendation given our current financial situation. I’m offended that it would be even recommended.”

Even though City Council managed to avoid layoffs in this year’s budget, Cincinnati’s operating budget remains structurally unbalanced, which means the city will have to come up with new revenue or cuts to balance the budget in upcoming years.

Seelbach told CityBeat he doesn’t agree with the competitiveness arguments.

“Im more concerned with the garbage worker whos making barely enough to get by and would love to get a quarter-on-the-hour raise, much less a $5,000 car allowance, he says. If someone wants to leave their position when they’re making $100,000-plus because we’re not going to give them a $5,000 car allowance, I’m convinced we can find someone just as capable, if not more capable, that would be thrilled with a $100,000-plus salary with no car allowance.”

Still, Olberding points out that city directors often need to drive more than the typical worker, whether it’s to get to public meetings, in case of an emergency or as a natural consequence of being on call 24/7. She says that justifies what she sees as a small cost.

The restoration was tucked into a proposal from the city manager that restores more than $6.7 million in previous cuts by using revenue left over from the previous budget cycle. The car allowance portion is about 0.3 percent of the total proposal and less than one-hundredth of a percent of the city’s overall operating budget.

For some city officials, the issue gets to what they perceive as a disconnect between private individuals and the government: Although thousands of dollars might seem like a lot of money to the typical person, the sum is usually worth much less than a penny on the dollar in city budget terms.

But Seelbach says garbage collectors and other city workers who havent received a raise in years would be thrilled to split $22,000, even if the sum doesnt mean much in total budget terms.

It shows a lack of respect for the people who make this city work,” Seelbach says.

The proposal also comes shortly after a tense budget showdown and in the middle of an election year for City Council and the mayors office.

Dohoney repeatedly said throughout the past year that the city would have to lay off 344 employees, including 189 cops and 80 firefighters, if it didn’t lease its parking meters to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority. The city ultimately avoided the layoffs without the parking lease by making cuts in various areas, including the city’s parks, and tapping into higher-than-expected revenues, but the city is still pursuing the lease to pay for economic development projects.

City Council will take up the restoration measures at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting on Sept. 24.

Updated at 4:09 p.m. with comments from Councilman Chris Seelbach.

 
 
by German Lopez 09.17.2013
 
 
aaron alexis

Morning News and Stuff

D.C. shooting leaves 13 dead, disparity study advances, Commons at Alaska project on hold

Yesterday’s shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., left 13 dead, including the suspected shooter. The suspect was identified as Aaron Alexis, 34, by the FBI. He died after a gun battle with police. Alexis was discharged from the Navy Reserve in 2011, the same year he was arrested for accidentally firing a bullet into his neighbor’s apartment. The Associated Press also reported that Alexis had been suffering from severe mental health issues and hearing voices. The Washington Post will continue live blogging about the events here.

City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee yesterday unanimously approved a proposal that will allow the city administration to study whether city contracts should favorably target minority- and women-owned businesses and report back with the results in February 2015. City officials support the measures because reported city contract participation rates have plummeted for minority-owned businesses and remained relatively flat for women-owned businesses since Cincinnati dismantled its previous minority- and women-owned business program in 1999. The study, which the city now estimates will cost $450,000 to $1 million, is necessary because of a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires governments to empirically prove there is a racial or gender-based disparity before enacting policies that favorably target such groups.

City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee also put a two-week hold on the controversial supportive housing project in Avondale while an independent mediator, who will be paid $5,000 by the city administration, goes in to take community feedback. The Commons at Alaska project has been criticized by community members who fear it will bring more deterioration to an already-blighted neighborhood, but supporters argue that a spread of misinformation has led to the current tensions. The proposed 99-unit facility would provide residence to the homeless, particularly those with severe mental health issues, physical disabilities and drug abuse histories. CityBeat covered the controversy in further detail here.

Gov. John Kasich yesterday reversed a decision from the Ohio Development Services Agency that prevented the public from seeing tax credit estimates that state agencies like JobsOhio use to gauge whether giving a business a tax break is worthwhile. Kasich agreed to the reversal after being questioned by reporters about whether keeping the estimates secret only further perpetuates the narrative that JobsOhio, the privatized development agency, is unaccountable. JobsOhio has been mired in multiple scandals in the past couple months after media reports revealed the agency suggested tax credits for companies with direct financial ties to the governor and JobsOhio board members. Republicans argue JobsOhio’s privatized, secretive nature helps it more quickly establish job-creating development deals, but Democrats say it allows the agency to waste taxpayer money without public scrutiny.

Kasich also hinted that his administration might pursue the Medicaid expansion without legislation, but he also clarified that the expansion will require agreement from legislators at some level. Under Obamacare, the federal government is asking states to expand Medicaid to include anyone at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level; if states accept, the federal government will pay for the entire expansion through 2016 then phase its payments down to an indefinite 90 percent. Kasich has been a strong proponent of the expansion, but Republican legislators have so far rejected his support.

A national organization could target Ohio’s LGBT population as part of a nationwide campaign that will raise awareness about Obamacare’s benefits. Kellan Baker, founder of Out 2 Enroll, says the efforts are needed in Ohio and the rest of the country because gay, lesbian, bisexual and especially transgendered people are often uninsured at greater levels than the rest of the country as a result of outright discrimination and poor outreach efforts. But three major changes in Obamacare could help fix the trend: tax subsidies, online marketplaces that will allow participants to compare insurance plans and new regulations that protect LGBT groups from discrimination in the health care and insurance industries.

A downtown office building at 906 Main St. is being converted to apartments.

Piracy apparently plays a major role in Netflix’s show purchases.

Wait But Why helps put time in perspective.

Small animals see the world in slow motion.

 
 
by German Lopez 09.16.2013
Posted In: News, Business, City Council at 03:40 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
city hall

Disparity Study Moves Forward

Committee unanimously approves city manager’s proposal

City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee on Sept. 16 unanimously approved a proposal that will allow the city administration to study whether city contracts should favorably target minority- and women-owned businesses and report back with the results in February 2015.

City officials support the measures because reported city contract participation rates have plummeted for minority-owned businesses and remained relatively flat for women-owned businesses since Cincinnati dismantled its previous minority- and women-owned business program in 1999.

The study, which the city now estimates will cost $450,000 to $1 million, is necessary because of a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires governments to empirically prove there is a racial or gender-based disparity before enacting policies that favorably target such groups.

It’s also unclear if the latest participation numbers are accurate. As part of the city’s previous business program, minority- and women-owned businesses were required to report as minority- and women-owned businesses. But the classification has been voluntary since the program was terminated, which could be leaving out businesses who choose not to report.

In August, council members supported funding the disparity study with money from the parking lease or any other funds the city administration could locate.

“We need to put all of Cincinnati to work building Cincinnati,” said Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who introduced the August motion, in a statement. “To make sure that the city has an open, fair, inclusive process that ensures everyone benefits from our public investments and from private development that we support with public money, we need an updated disparity study.”

Cincinnati hasn’t undertaken a disparity study since 2002. That study found evidence of disparities but ultimately recommended race- and gender-neutral policies to avoid legal uncertainty that surrounded the issue at the time.

Officials claim they couldn’t conduct another study until the city administration finished implementing suggestions from OPEN Cincinnati, a task force established in 2009 to reform the city’s small business program after Mayor Mark Mallory and his administration were accused of neglect.

The study has also been stalled by cost concerns. Some critics argue the money would be better spent elsewhere, but, in an uncommon moment of consensus, all council members have backed funding.

The city manager’s proposal calls for conducting the study between February 2014 and January 2015. The city administration will report the results to City Council and take public comments on the study in February 2015.

 
 
by Hannah McCartney 09.16.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Homelessness at 02:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)
 
 
news1_jf1.widea

City Committee Puts Commons at Alaska Project on Hold

Independent mediator will work with supporters and opposition

The controversial proposed supportive housing facility for Alaska Avenue in Avondale was the main subject of a heated session of City Council's Budget and Finance Committee today, which resulted in the committee's decision to put the project on hold for two weeks. The committee also announced its intent to allocate $5,000 for an independent mediator, which the city administration will be responsible for finding.

A slew of Avondale community members spoke out in opposition of the project, while representatives from National Church Residences (NCR), Josh Spring of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and Kevin Finn of Strategies to End Homelessness were some of those who publicly expressed support for the project. Many in opposition articulated concern that predominantly poor black neighborhoods such as Avondale are "targeted" for low-income housing projects like these, while supporters insist a spread of misinformation is largely responsible for the tension and that the complex is a necessary step in moving forward with the city's 2008 Homeless to Homes Plan, which explicitly cited NCR as the well-regarded nonprofit developer and manager of supportive housing facilities commissioned to bring a permanent supportive housing facility to the city. 

The proposed project, coined Commons at Alaska, would be a 99-unit facility providing residency and supportive services to the area homeless population, particularly those with with severe mental health issues, physical disabilities and histories of alcohol and substance abuse. The project, which gained City Council's official support in February, has recently come under scrutiny from community group Avondale 29, Alaska Avenue residents and other community stakeholders who are fervently expressing public distaste for the facility, which they worry will threaten the safety and revitalization efforts in the neighborhood. CityBeat covered the controversy here.

Councilman Smitherman, who originally voted against Council's support for the project in February, vocally expressed his opposition, and later, Councilman Winburn rescinded his support for the project.

"It appears that maximum citizen participation did not happen... you are having hundreds of people who are not ready yet for this project. So something went wrong somewhere," he said. 

Winburn was also the one to announce the motion that asked council to suspend the project for two weeks.

Both sides are expected to once again go in front of the Budget & Finance Committee on a Sept. 30 meeting


 
 
by Hannah McCartney 09.12.2013
 
 
stand-your-ground-law

City Officially Opposes Proposed "Stand Your Ground" Laws

Council vote unanimous; Dayton, Canton and Toledo expected to follow suit

A unanimous City Council vote on Wednesday to pass a resolution officially representing Cincinnati's opposition to the proposed H.B. 203, Ohio's own version of controversial "Stand Your Ground" laws, is part of a statewide advocacy effort to oppose loosening restrictions on the use of deadly force.

The vote puts Cincinnati in the middle of a national dialogue that's been ongoing since the death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., in 2012. 

The bill, introduced by House Republicans on June 11, contains several revisions to the state's gun laws, the most controversial of which is the proposal to expand the circumstances in which a person has no duty to retreat from a threatening situation before using force in self-defense. Those in opposition to the bill worry that change will encourage vigilante justice and give gun owners a false sense of entitlement in using their firearms in otherwise non-violent situations.

The bill's language also loosens restrictions on concealed carry permits and would make it easier for individuals subject to protection orders to obtain handguns.

State Rep. Alicia Reece spoke at a Wednesday press conference at City Hall to support Cincinnati's formal opposition to the bill. Reece, also president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, is part of its statewide campaign to garner enough opposition to H.B. 203 to present to Gov. John Kasich and other legislative leaders. 

She says OLBC has already collected about 5,000 petitions and hopes to obtain more than 10,000 by the time the Ohio House of Representatives resumes regular sessions on Oct. 2. 

Reece and Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, who sponsored the resolution, insist that Ohio's self-defense laws are already strong enough to protect those who face physical threats from others. In 2008, then-Gov. Ted Strickland signed Ohio's "Castle Doctrine" into law, which stripped homeowners of the duty to try to retreat in threatening situations and  gives them the "benefit of the doubt" when they injure or kill a person who enters their residence or vehicle.

"While many states around the country which have Stand Your Ground laws are looking at ways in which they can repeal those laws, or change those laws, unfortunately Ohio is moving backwards by trying to implement Stand Your Ground laws, which has become one of the most polarizing issues not only in the state of Ohio, but in the country," said Reece at Wednesday's press conference

The efficacy of stand-your-ground laws to reduce violence is widely debated; several researches insist that the laws actually cause an increase in homicides. Mark Hoekstra, an economist with Texas A&M University, published a study that found homicides increase 7 to 9 percent in states that pass stand your ground laws, compared to states that didn't pass laws over the same period. His study found no evidence the laws had an effect on deterring crime during the time period. Those statistics are difficult to gauge, however, because some homicides are legitimately considered "justifiable" while others may just be the result of the "escalation of violence in an otherwise non-violent situation," he told NPR in January.

H.B. 203 is currently waiting to be heard in front of the Policy and Legislative Oversight committee. See an analysis of the bill below:

Analysis of H.B. 203
 
 
by German Lopez 09.12.2013
Posted In: News, Climate Change, LGBT, City Council at 09:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
lgbt protections

Morning News and Stuff

Advocates pursue LGBT protections, Ohio among worst polluters, local business could move

It’s legal in most of Ohio for an employer to fire someone over his or her sexual orientation, but a new bipartisan bill being pushed by Equality Ohio could make the practice and anti-LGBT discrimination for housing illegal. Critics of the Equal Housing and Employment Act argue it could lead to a flood of lawsuits against companies, but Equality Ohio argues that just hasn’t happened in other states that passed nondiscrimination statutes. The bill’s Democratic and Republican sponsors argue that it would actually grow the economy by making Ohio more inclusive, which would make it easier to keep “the best and the brightest” employees. The bill was introduced in May and its sponsors expect it to be taken up after the General Assembly reconvenes in October.

In the United States, Ohio’s power plants pollute more than all but Texas’ power plants, making Ohio one of the nation’s leading contributors to global warming, according to a Sept. 10 report from advocacy group Environment Ohio. The report calls for all levels of government to create and enforce stronger standards and regulations to curtail pollution and encourage cleaner forms of energy. National conservative groups oppose the stricter rules; they flat-out deny human-caused global warming despite the nearly unanimous scientific consensus that it’s at least partly caused by human actions. Some companies also argue efficiency standards impose too many costs on businesses and customers.

Cincinnati officials apparently expected Pure Romance to get tax credits from Ohio. But the state ultimately refused to grant the credits, which are regularly given to firms for job creation. Now the company, along with its $100 million in annual revenues, is considering moving across the river to Covington, Ky. Ohio officials won’t clarify why Pure Romance’s request was refused, but the company suspects it’s because its product lineup includes sex toys, which could have been politically embarrassing for Gov. John Kasich’s administration.

Following the Sept. 10 mayoral primary’s historically low voter turnout, the Charter Committee, Cincinnati’s unofficial third political party, is supporting efforts to reform how the city elects its mayors. “It is absurd that taxpayers paid $400,000 for a primary yesterday that few people voted in, and that decided very little,” said Mike Goldman, convener of the Charter Committee, in a statement. Voter turnout for the Sept. 10 mayoral primary was a dismal 5.68 percent, much lower than the 15 percent that turned out for the primary held on Sept. 11, 2001 — the day of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon — and the 21 percent of voters that participated in the 2005 primary.

A City Council motion could strip council members’ support for a controversial permanent supportive housing facility in Avondale. The proposed facility, Commons at Alaska, would be a 99-unit housing facility with residency and supportive services for the homeless, particularly those with mental health issues, physical disabilities and histories of substance abuse. Several Avondale residents are concerned the facility would further deteriorate an already-blighted community. CityBeat covered the dispute in further detail here.

Cincinnati Public Schools is asking the state to force the Emery Center, home of the embattled Emery Theatre, to pay taxes. The property taxes could produce $130,000 a year for CPS, which the school district says it needs because local property taxes make up more of its funding than the typical urban district in Ohio. The Emery Center was originally tax exempt under a plan that used the ground floor for education purposes and a renovated Emery Theatre for community events. But neither happened; the ground floor is currently used by the Coffee Emporium, and the theater currently isn’t being renovated or used.

A judge ordered Duke Energy to destroy or return a memo that was apparently embarrassing for Cincinnati officials because the memo, which was sent by the city’s Law Department to the city manager, was supposed to remain private under attorney-client privilege. Duke wanted to use the memo in its current case against the city. The city and Duke are in court as part of an agreement between the two entities to legally settle who has to pay for moving utility lines to accommodate for the streetcar project.

The Ohio Department of Insurance hasn’t received any applications or certified individuals for Obamacare’s formal outreach effort. The “navigators,” as officials call them, are a crucial part of Obamacare because they’re supposed to promote the law’s benefits to ensure the federal government meets its health insurance enrollment goals to keep costs down. Health care advocates claim the lag is driven by federal training requirements and a state law enacted in July. The state law made it so some groups, including Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, can no longer participate in the navigator program, as CityBeat covered in further detail here.

Debe Terhar, the president of Ohio Board of Education, wants Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye removed from the state’s Common Core education standards because the book contains a rape scene. Terhar called the book “pornographic” at a Sept. 10 Board of Education meeting. But Terhar clarified that she doesn’t want to ban the book, and she would still allow different school districts keep it in their curriculums.

State Auditor Dave Yost says Ohio’s cities and counties need to do a better job complying with public record requests. A sampling of 20 cities and counties found eight, or 40 percent, had weaknesses in compliance. The most common problem was inadequate measures to track public record requests.

The Cincinnati area’s largest mall is up for sale for $45 million. The struggling mall has gone through several names over the years: Forest Fair Village, Cincinnati Mall, Cincinnati Mills and Forest Fair Mall.

Orangutans apparently announce their travel plans a day in advance.

 
 
by Hannah McCartney 09.11.2013
 
 
avondale housing

Motion Could Strip Council Support for Commons at Alaska

Winburn, Thomas cite "community outrage" in asking council to oppose project

The controversial permanent supportive housing facility proposed for a residential area of Avondale that caused outrage amongst Avondale community members took a small blow today when Cincinnati City Council members Pam Thomas and Charlie Winburn introduced a motion at a City Council meeting to rescind council's original support for the facility.

The proposed facility, Commons at Alaska, would be a 99-unit housing facility providing residency and supportive services to the area homeless population, particularly those with severe mental health issues, physical disabilities and histories of alcohol and substance abuse. CityBeat covered extensively the Avondale community's concerns about the location of the facility and how the project's developers felt the facility was misunderstood ("Home Invasion," issue of Sept. 4). 

On Feb. 13, City Council offered its official support for the Commons at Alaska project in a resolution, a decision members of Avondale 29, the group formed to oppose the project, say was made without proper community outreach and neglect for proper considerations of the facility's effects on the already-blighted surrounding neighborhood. At that time, Christopher Smitherman and Cecil Thomas (before he resigned his position) were the only two members of council who did not vote to pass the resolution.

The motion reads: "When the resolution was heard by City Council, a small minority of the 18,000 members of the Avondale Community expressed their support for the development. Further, the North Avondale Community Council has voiced their opposition to the development. With this resolution, the majority of the community who are opposed to the development are being heard."

The developer, National Church Residences, is a well-respected developer and manager of housing facilities for the homeless nationwide. In June, the project received more than $1 million in tax credit financing from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, which would allow NCR to move forward with building plans and eventually begin construction in summer 2014.

City Council's official support was originally cited in NCR's application to the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, which may have factored in to OHFA's decision to award the tax credits. The motion will be voted on in council's Budget and Finance Committee on Monday, Sept. 16 at 1 p.m.


 
 
by German Lopez 09.05.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Police at 12:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
pride_seelbach_jf

City to Crack Down on Cellphone Theft

Councilman Chris Seelbach introducing legislation Monday

In partnership with the Cincinnati Police Department, City Councilman Chris Seelbach on Thursday unveiled a legislative plan that would crack down on cellphone thefts by making it more difficult to sell stolen devices.

“We know that the cellphone is such an important part of everyone’s lives,” Seelbach says. “It’s how we connect to our loved ones, to our work environment. It’s how we capture moments that we want to remember. And so to have something like that stolen is definitely an offense that is personal.”

Americans are increasingly using cellphones for more than making calls. Applications now let people browse the Internet, social media and even bank accounts. But the diversity of uses has also linked cellphone theft to other crimes, such as identity theft.

Cellphone thefts made up 30 to 40 percent of robberies in major cities in 2011, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The initiative will require the hundreds of dealers who currently buy cellphones second-hand to get licensed with the city and keep full records of the transaction, including a serial number of the device, a photocopy of the sellers ID and other contact information. Seelbach likened the requirements to existing regulations for pawn shops.

The hope is that cracking down on dealers will make stolen cellphones more difficult to sell and less lucrative to potential thieves.

Seelbach says the plan will come at no extra cost outside of the extra policing work. Acting Cincinnati Police Chief Paul Humphries says the police department prefers taking preventive measures that stop cellphone theft in the first place than spending costlier resources on investigating a robbery after it happens.

If the legislation is approved by City Council, police officers will first take steps to educate dealers about the new law. Shortly after, police will begin cracking down with fines.

Officials are also advising cellphone owners to take their own steps to avoid having devices stolen: Never leave a phone unattended, avoid using a cellphone in public when it’s unnecessary and put a password lock on the phone.

Similar laws already exist at the state level, but they’re currently not enforced, Seelbach says.

The plan will go through a City Council committee on Monday and, if approved there, a full session of City Council on Wednesday. Seelbach says he’s expecting unanimous support from fellow council members.

 
 
by German Lopez 09.03.2013
Posted In: News, City Council, Pensions at 11:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
city hall

Pension Amendment to Appear on November Ballot

City Council reluctantly allows ballot initiative to move forward

Despite unanimous opposition, City Council fulfilled duties dictated by the City Charter and voted to allow a controversial pension amendment to appear on the ballot this November.

Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls explained that all council members oppose the amendment, but it’s part of City Council’s ministerial duties to allow ballot initiatives if petitioners gather enough signatures to put the issue to a public vote. The Hamilton County Board of Elections announced on Aug. 12 that petitioners had gathered enough signatures to clear the 7,443 requirement.

The amendment would privatize Cincinnati’s pension system so future city employees — excluding police and fire personnel, who are under a separate system — contribute to and manage individual 401k-style accounts. Currently, the city pools pension contributions and manages the investments through an independent board.

City officials oppose the amendment. They say it will cost the city more and hurt retirement gains for city employees.

One new concern: As written, the amendment could force the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to revoke tax-exempt status for city employees’ retirement plans. Paula Tilsley, executive director of the Cincinnati Retirement System, says the new tax burden would force someone in a lower tax bracket with $100,000 in retirement savings to immediately pay $15,000 in taxes.

Supporters of the amendment, including out-of-state tea party groups, argue it’s necessary to address Cincinnati’s present and future pension liabilities, which currently stand at $862 million.

The current liability is a result of two issues: City Council has underfunded the pension system by varying degrees since at least 2003, and economic downturns have hurt investments in the city’s pension system.

That outstanding liability was one of the factors that led Moody’s, a credit ratings agency, to downgrade Cincinnati’s bond rating on July 15.

City officials say they’ve already taken steps to resolve future costs and the only remaining concern is how to pay for the current liability. In 2011, City Council raised the retirement age and reduced pension benefits for city employees and retirees.

“This council adopted some of the most sweeping changes to any public pension system in the country for current and future employees,” Qualls said.

Councilman Chris Smitherman clarified he doesn’t support the proposed amendment, but he says City Council has done a poor job with the current pension system.

“My recommendation to this council is to put forth a solution to solve the problem,” Smitherman said. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t say, ‘This is bad,’ and then underfund the pension.”

Tilsley says the pension board will make recommendations to City Council within a month to address the current pension liability. The board estimates the changes would keep the system 100 percent funded after 30 years.

CityBeat covered the amendment and the groups that might be behind it in further detail here.

Updated (2:17 p.m.): Updated to reflect the full City Council vote.

 
 

 

 

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by Nick Swartsell 08.06.2014 46 days ago
Posted In: City Council, County commissioners at 04:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
music hall

Music Hall Cut From Icon Tax Proposal

County Commissioners leave 136-year-old landmark out of renovation funding plan

Hamilton County Commissioners voted today to axe Music Hall from a proposed sales tax increase designed to pay for renovations to that structure and Union Terminal. Now, only Union Terminal will benefit from the potential tax hike, which county voters will decide on in November. Voters won't get a chance to decide whether a similar hike will pay for Music Hall.

Mayor John Cranley and Cincinnati City Council are not happy about the change-up.

“As mayor of this city, I’m deeply offended when we’re treated as second-class citizens in our own county,” Cranley said during a vote approving the city’s contribution to renovations at today’s council meeting. “We have done our part. We will pay the tax if it is passed. In no other jurisdiction, not even Hamilton County, is being asked to cut its budget … for these institutions.”

Cranley said asking city taxpayers for more money represents a kind of double taxation, since they would also be paying the county sales tax increase.

Ostensibly, council was voting to approve annual payments toward upkeep of both Union Terminal and Music Hall for 25 years. The $200,000 yearly commitment to each building adds up to $10 million. Cranley floated the plan last week as a demonstration of the city’s commitment to the landmark buildings.

Council approved that money unanimously, but that vote is mostly symbolic now that the fragile plan to fund both renovations with a tax hike, first proposed by a cadre of area business leaders called the Cultural Facilities Task Force, has fallen through. Hamilton County Commissioners Greg Hartmann and Chris Monzel said the proposed contributions, which the city already makes, don’t represent a renewed effort to fix the buildings.

The city has also pledged another $10 million toward Music Hall repairs. Those contributions weren’t enough for Hartmann, who had been the swing vote on the three-member commission. He signaled he would not vote for the original 14-year, .25 percent sales tax increase designed to raise much of the $331 million needed to repair the buildings.

Instead, he voted with fellow Republican Monzel today for an alternate tax measure that left Music Hall out of the deal, raising $170 million over five years for renovations to Union Terminal only. Democrat Todd Portune, who supported the original plan, voted against the new deal.

Former P&G CEO Bob McDonald, who led the task force designing the original deal, said the new plan jeopardizes more than $40 million in private donations, as well as historic preservation tax credits.

"The idea that somehow there’s going to be more money falling from space or that this money will be put forward for an alternate plan is a fallacious assumption," McDonald told the Cincinnati Business Courier. "That money has been committed to us personally for this plan.”

Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld called the development “frustrating.”

“I’m not here to add gasoline to the fire, but I think logic is a fair expectation of our elected leaders, and after people have said repeatedly that plans haven’t been vetted, that questions haven’t been answered, they’ve now moved forward with something that has no vetting,” Sittenfeld said, referring to criticisms of the original plan by anti-tax groups like COAST. “I hope people don’t forget what happened eight blocks from City Hall anytime soon.”

Monzel said that the plan's details would be worked out in the coming weeks, and that he wants to keep the county from overextending itself.

“If we limit the scope and focus on the one building that we do have a history with and limit it to five years, we limit our exposure and can be able to handle some of these other issues down the road,” he said.

Council members said that the city has stepped up to take care of the buildings in the past.

“Going back through the real-estate records, it’s clear that time and time again the city has stepped forward,” said Councilman Kevin Flynn. He highlighted the city’s rescue of Union Terminal from a failed plan to turn it into a mall in the 1980s. The city bought the building from a developer after the plan crashed and burned. Flynn also said the city has made significant contributions to 136-year-old Music Hall's upkeep since the 1800s.

 
 
by Nick Swartsell 06.25.2014 88 days ago
Posted In: City Council at 11:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
avondale housing

A Win-Win of Sorts for Affordable Housing

Council funds one development and leaves the door open for another

A deal approved by City Council June 25 splits the city’s limited funds among two affordable housing projects, funding one one in Over-the-Rhine and leaving the door open for another that’s been in the works for the last few years in Avondale.

The compromise didn’t come without contentiousness, though.

A 100-unit permanent supportive housing project called Commons of Alaska first proposed in 2008 for Avondale has received support from the majority of council in the past, including indications it would get $500,000 in funding toward the facility. But the project has also been delayed as some in Avondale have protested the plans by Columbus-based National Church Residences.

As controversy stalled the Avondale project, Over the Rhine Community Housing put together an unrelated plan to buy up and rehab affordable housing in the Pendleton District in eastern Over-the-Rhine. The city administration indicated to OTRCH that it would be able to use $1.9 million in federal grant money the city holds to help purchase and restore the properties.

Just a couple catches — that’s all the grant money the city has for affordable housing and it’s the same pool of money that would have gone to NCR for Avondale. The NCR project has been around longer, but some council members are adamantly against it and groups in Avondale opposed to the Commons are vocal and active, continually voicing their opposition to the project.

The Pendleton plan has its own drawbacks. Originally, the plan called for all the available grant money for just 40 units of housing. NCR’s plan called for just a quarter of the funds. OTRCH says the properties in question are very neglected, despite having been rehabbed in the 1990s. They must also be purchased first, which accounts for much of the big price tag.

As City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee met June 23, it looked like a battle was shaping up over the money. But it wasn’t to be, and compromise won the day.

“Affordable housing and permanent supportive housing are in our heart, they’re what we do,” said Mary Burke Rivers, executive director of OTRCH. “It’s a really difficult position to be in right now, because we support the NCR project.”

Rivers asked the Budget Committee to work with both developers to figure out a way to do both projects.

Vice Mayor David Mann offered an amendment to give $1.3 million to OTRCH and hold the other $500,000 or so in grant funds until the NCR project can be sorted out or until another supportive housing project can be worked out. The Budget Committee, and subsequently council, passed that deal.

OTRCH, which had looked likely to get all the $1.9 million it requested, agreed to scale back plans and make the lower funding work so both projects could be done. That doesn’t mean the NCR project has a green light, however.

An alternate site in another part of Avondale is under consideration, but there are a number of procedural hurdles and opposition is still loud against the project.

Some resident groups there say Avondale already has a high concentration of low-income housing, a result of historic inequalities in city planning going back to the 1960s.

Ruth Johnson Watts said she’s lived in North Avondale since 1963.

“When will we stop this trend of keeping crime and poverty concentrated in one or a few neighborhoods?" she asked. "We’re saying that Avondale has reached the capacity for poverty and crime without the necessities of life in our community, like grocery stores, a pharmacy and jobs.”

At least part of the objection to the project is the nature of permanent supportive housing, which provides affordable housing and recovery resources for those who would otherwise be homeless due to addiction problems, mental health issues or disabilities.

Advocates say the housing is a necessary step in a multiple-tiered path out of homelessness, starting when an individual enters a temporary shelter and ending when they are able to achieve independent housing. The city’s Homeless to Homes program calls for supportive housing like the Commons at Alaska would provide, but currently the city only has about 15 percent of the units called for in the plan.

NCR has won national recognition for its work with rehabilitative housing, but the group has caught flack for lack of community outreach in Avondale.

Councilmember Christopher Smitherman lambasted the developer during the Budget Committee meeting, saying the group’s efforts to inform Avondale residents about their plan wasn’t good enough and that NCR should be sending letters to every property owner in the area.

“This isn’t complicated, this community engagement,” he said. “It really frustrates me that we’re here talking about a project where those community stakeholders haven’t even been properly identified and communicated with."

Amy Rosenthal of NCR said the group has reached out to half a dozen key individuals and groups in the area and will continue to work with the community.

During council’s final vote on the compromise yesterday, Councilmember Yvette Simpson suggested that instead of simply opposing more affordable housing in the neighborhood, other council members and Avondale residents should oppose those who aren’t doing the job well.

She said her mother had once been placed in what she called sub-standard permanent supportive housing in Avondale.

“The reality is, when you have a great provider for the people who need it, it can be a stability point for the community as opposed to the many facilities in Avondale and throughout our city that are taking a check from people, and people are wandering off,” Simpson said.

She recalled a personal experience.

“My mother walked home from Avondale to Lincoln Heights and nobody knew she was gone. As someone who has lived with this my entire life, evaluating, trying to find a safe place for a parent, it’s real — you know the difference.”
 
 
by Rachel Podnar 05.29.2014 115 days ago
Posted In: LGBT Issues, Public Transit, City Council, Mayor at 12:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
34654622-c5a6-4ae7-8f05-0b2569894db9

Metro to Offer Domestic Partner Benefits

Organization could become first to utilize city’s proposed domestic partner registry

Kim Lahman was doing cartwheels in her mind for Metro this morning.

The organization’s Ridership and Development Director celebrated Metro’s announcement on Thursday that it will provide health and dental benefits to domestic partners of its employees.

Lahman said she has used same-sex partner benefits in the past, when she went back to school.

“[My partner and I] know first-hand what it means to have the flexibility and equality as others do in the workplace,” Lahman said at a press conference at Metro’s office. “This is just a fantastic day and I’m so proud that Metro is able to do the right thing.”

Metro is the first employer to say it will use Cincinnati’s domestic partner registry if the initiative passes next week in City Council. Should it pass, Cincinnati will be the 10th city in Ohio to have a domestic partner registry.

Mayor John Cranley and City Councilman Chris Seelbach attended the press conference and spoke in support of the move.

Cranley called it “symbolically and substantively right” and during   the announcement shared a memory in honor of Maya Angelou, her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.

“She ended it with ‘Good morning,’” Cranley said. “I think this is a good morning for Cincinnati, a new day.”

Many of Cincinnati’s major employers, including Procter & Gamble, Kroger and Macy’s offer same-sex and domestic partner benefits.

Seelbach said while those companies already have systems to evaluate domestic partnerships, the registry will give other companies like Metro an easy way to provide those benefits.

“We are now leaders in the nation and the region to make sure everyone is welcome in our city, regardless of who they love,” Seelbach said. “Everyone should bring their full self to their workplace and be able to do that with health benefits for their partners.”

Seelbach said while Metro is the first to say it will use the registry, other companies like Cincinnati Bell have expressed interest.

Metro is a nonprofit tax-funded public service of the Southwestern Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) with around 850 employees.

One of SORTA’s executive statements says the organization is committed to a work environment that “promotes dignity and respect for all.”

Board Chair Jason Dunn said SORTA’s commitment to inclusion is a great business decision.

“It shows that we value our employees,” Dunn said. “It shows that not only is Metro on the cutting edge of transportation but also making sure we are open to talent and we are open to retaining great talent in our system.”

Same-sex partners with a valid marriage license, same-sex partners registered by a government entity and same-sex partners with a sworn affidavit will be recognized by Metro for domestic partner benefits, which will take effect January 1, 2015.

 

 

 

 
 
by German Lopez 03.06.2014
 
 
city hall

Morning News and Stuff

Downtown project gets path forward, feds to pay for firefighters, health board defies mayor

Flaherty & Collins, the developer that wants to tear down a garage as part of its downtown grocery and apartment tower project, offered to pay for a tenant’s move to keep the deal moving forward. The tenant, Paragon Salon, recently announced its intent to sue the city after Mayor John Cranley’s refusal to pay for the salon business’s move left the development project and Paragon in a limbo of uncertainty. With Flaherty & Collins’ offer, the development deal should be able to advance without extra costs to the city.

But Cranley says he still wants 3CDC to review the downtown development project to set the best path forward.

Federal money will help Cincinnati keep and hire more firefighters. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant provides nearly $8.1 million — about 2 percent of the city’s $370 million operating budget — to pay the salaries and benefits of 50 firefighters for two years. Afterward, the city will need to pick up the costs, which could worsen an operating budget gap that currently sits at $22 million for fiscal 2015. The move would increase the Cincinnati Fire Department’s staffing levels from 841 to 879 and help prevent brownouts, according to the firefighting agency.

The Cincinnati Board of Health defied Mayor Cranley by unilaterally pursuing a $1.3 million grant that will provide preventative and primary care services to underserved populations. Rocky Merz, spokesperson for the board, says the grant application complies with guidance from the city’s top lawyer. Cranley opposes the grant because the extra services it enables could push up costs for the city down the line.

Hamilton County officials will look for outside legal help in their fight against the city’s job training rules for Metropolitan Sewer District projects. CityBeat covered the rules, known as “responsible bidder,” in further detail here.

Smale Riverfront Park will receive $4.5 million in federal funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to control erosion and prevent flooding.

Crime around Cincinnati’s Horseshoe Casino never materialized, despite warnings from critics prior to casinos’ legalization in Ohio.

Ohio’s prison re-entry rate declined and sits well below the national average, according to a study from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The study found 27.1 percent of inmates released in 2010 ended up back up in prison, down from 28.7 percent of individuals released in 2009. In comparison, the national average is 44 percent.

Hundreds of Ohio school districts plan to test out the state’s new online assessments for math, language arts, social studies and science.

The cold winter is pushing up natural gas prices, according to Ohio’s largest natural gas utility.

A second baby might have been cured of HIV, the sexually transmitted disease that causes AIDS. Even with the potential successes, doctors caution it’s still very much unclear whether the treatment provides a definitive cure for the deadly disease.

Meanwhile, a first-of-its-kind intravaginal ring could prevent pregnancy and HIV.

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by German Lopez 03.05.2014
 
 
greenpeace P&G

Morning News and Stuff

Anti-P&G protesters face court, 3CDC to resolve project, mayor denies politics in board pick

A group of Greenpeace protesters face burglary and vandalism charges after a stunt yesterday on the Procter & Gamble buildings. Protesters apparently teamed up with a helicopter to climb outside the P&G buildings to hang up a large sign criticizing the company for allegedly enabling the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia by working with an irresponsible palm oil supplier. P&G officials say they are looking into the protesters’ claims, but they already committed to changing how they obtain palm oil by 2015.

Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) will step in to resolve the status of a downtown grocery and apartment tower project. The previous city administration pushed the project as a means to bring more residential space downtown, but Mayor John Cranley refuses to pay to move a tenant in the parking garage that needs to be torn down as part of the project. Following Cranley and Councilman Chris Seelbach’s request for 3CDC’s help, the development agency will recommend a path forward and outline costs to the city should it not complete the project.

Meanwhile, the tenants in the dispute announced today that they will sue the city to force action and stop the uncertainty surrounding their salon business.

Cranley insists politics were not involved in an appointment to the Cincinnati Board of Health, contrary to complaints from the board official the mayor opted to replace. Cranley will replace Joyce Kinley, whose term expired at the end of the month, with Herschel Chalk. “Herschel Chalk, who(m) I’m appointing, has been a long-time advocate against prostate cancer, who's somebody I’ve gotten to know,” Cranley told WVXU. “I was impressed by him because of his advocacy on behalf of fighting cancer. I committed to appoint him a long time ago.”

The costs for pausing the streetcar project back in December remain unknown, but city officials are already looking into what the next phase of the project would cost.

Troubled restaurant Mahogany’s must fully pay for rent and fees by March 10 or face eviction.

Through his new project, one scientist intends to “make 100 years old the next 60.”

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by German Lopez 03.04.2014
Posted In: News, Development, Budget, City Council, Mayor at 10:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
downtown grocery

Morning News and Stuff

Mayor blocks downtown development, city leaders push for Google Fiber, budget gap grows

Mayor John Cranley could dismantle a deal that would produce a grocery store, 300 luxury apartments and a new parking garage downtown. Cranley says he doesn’t want millions put toward the deal, even though the developer involved plans to invest another $60 million. Councilman Chris Seelbach says the deal isn’t dead just because of the mayor’s opposition, and City Council could act to bypass the mayor, just like the legislative body did with the streetcar project and responsible bidder. To Seelbach, the deal is necessary to bring much-needed residential space and an accessible grocery store downtown.

Cincinnati officials and startup executives will try to bring Google Fiber, which provides Internet speeds 100 times faster than normal broadband, to Cincinnati. Google plans to hold a national competition to see which cities are most deserving of its fiber services. “Over the last several years, Cincinnati’s innovation ecosystem has made tremendous strides,” Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld said in a statement. “We’re increasingly becoming a magnet for talented entrepreneurs across the country who want to come here to bring their big ideas to life. We need to ensure that we have the modern technological infrastructure to make Cincinnati nationally competitive.”

Cincinnati’s operating budget gap for fiscal 2015 now stands at $22 million, up from an earlier forecast of $18.5 million, largely because of extra spending on police pushed by Cranley and a majority of City Council. The city must balance its operating budget each year, which means the large gap will likely lead to layoffs and service cuts.

Commentary:Budget Promises Spur Fears of Cuts.

Cranley won’t re-appoint the chair of Cincinnati’s Board of Health. When asked why, Chairwoman Joyce Kinley told City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee that Cranley told her “he had to fulfill a campaign promise.” Some city officials say they worry Cranley is putting politics over the city’s needs.

Troubled restaurant Mahogany’s needs to pay back rent or move out, The Banks’ landlord declared Monday. The deciding moment for Mahogany’s comes after months of struggles, which restaurant owner Liz Rogers blames on the slow development of the riverfront.

Kathy Wilson:Mahogany’s: Turn Out the Lights.”

Cincinnati’s Horseshoe Casino supports 1,700 workers, making it the largest of Ohio's four voter-approved casinos.

At least one airline, Allegiant Air, plans to add flights from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Headline:Man wakes up in body bag at funeral home.”

“A 30,000-year-old giant virus has been revived from the frozen Siberian tundra,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

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by German Lopez 02.27.2014
Posted In: News, Parking, History, Mayor, City Council, city manager at 09:51 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
news parking

Morning News and Stuff

Council backs parking plan, strong mayor gains support, museum keeps Dr. Seuss cartoons

City Council yesterday expressed support for a barebones parking plan that would upgrade all meters to accept credit card payments and increase enforcement around the city, which should boost annual revenues. The plan does not increase rates or hours at meters, as Mayor John Cranley originally called for. It also doesn’t allow people to pay for parking meters through smartphones. The plan ultimately means death for the parking privatization plan, which faced widespread criticism after the previous city administration and council passed it as a means to jumpstart new investments and help fix the city’s operating budget and pension system.

Councilman Christopher Smitherman plans to pursue changes to the city’s political structure to give more power to the mayor and less to the city manager. Smitherman says the current system is broken because it doesn’t clearly define the role of the mayor. Under Smitherman’s system, the mayor would run the city and hire department heads; the city manager, who currently runs the city and handles hiring, would primarily preside over budget issues; and City Council would pass legislation and act as a check to the mayor. Smitherman aims to put the plan to voters this November.

Commentary: “WCPO’s Sloppy Streetcar Reporting Misses Real Concerns.”

The Cincinnati Art Museum maintains five political cartoons from the famed Dr. Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel), but none are currently on public display. The cartoons call back to the history before World War II, when most of the world played ignorant to the horrors of the Holocaust and Americans had yet to enter the war. Dr. Seuss loathed the villains on the world stage, and his cartoons promoted a message of interventionism that would eventually lead him to join the Army to help in the fight against the Axis powers. When he returned home, he would write the famous stories and books he’s now so well known for.

Mayor Cranley and some council members appear reluctant to accept a routine grant application that would allow the Cincinnati Health Department to open two more clinics because of the potential effect the clinics could have on the city’s budget. Cranley and other council members also seem concerned that the Health Department played a role in the recent closing of Neighborhood Health Care, which shut down four clinics and three school-based programs after it lost federal funding.

Ohio legislators approved a bill that forces absentee voters to submit more information and reduces the amount of time provisional voters have to confirm their identities from 10 days to one week. For Democrats, the bill adds to previous concerns that Republicans are attempting to suppress voters. The bill now goes to Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who’s expected to sign the measure into law.

The Ohio legislature continues wrangling over how to give schools more snow days.

More than 175,000 claims have been filed over winter damage, potentially making this winter one of the costliest in decades.

Robot suits could make mixed martial arts blood-free.

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by German Lopez 02.25.2014
Posted In: News, LGBT, City Council, Mayor at 11:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
 
 
pride_seelbach_jf

City Pursues Domestic Partner Registry for Same-Sex Couples

Seelbach touts measure to boost Cincinnati’s LGBT inclusion score

The mayor and a supermajority of City Council backs efforts to establish a domestic partner registry for same-sex couples in Cincinnati, Councilman Chris Seelbach’s office announced Tuesday.

If adopted by the city, the registry will allow same-sex couples to gain legal recognition through the city. That would let same-sex couples apply for domestic partner benefits at smaller businesses, which typically don’t have the resources to verify legally unrecognized relationships, according to Seelbach’s office.

Specifically, the City Council motion asks the city administration to reach out to other cities that have adopted domestic partner registries, including Columbus and eight other Ohio cities, and establish specific guidelines.

Seelbachs office preemptively outlined a few requirements to sign up: Same-sex couples will need to pay a $45 fee and prove strong financial interdependency by showing joint property ownership, power of attorney, a will and other unspecified requirements.

“As a result of a $45 fee to join the registry, we believe this will be entirely budget neutral, meaning it won't cost the city or the taxpayers a single dollar,” Seelbach said in a statement.

If the plan is adopted this year, Cincinnati should gain a perfect score in the next “Municipal Equality Index” from the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group that, among other tasks, evaluates LGBT inclusion efforts from city to city. Cincinnati scored a 90 out of 100 in the 2013 rankings, with domestic partner registries valued at 12 points.

Seelbach expects the administration to report back with a full proposal that City Council can vote on in the coming months.

 
 
by German Lopez 02.13.2014
 
 
news1_headwatersgatewaydistrict_provided

What Is Responsible Bidder?

City’s rule for MSD projects attempts to increase local employment, job training

Following county commissioner’s Feb. 12 meeting, the dispute between Cincinnati and Hamilton County over contracting rules for Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) projects appears to be heading to court.

The court battle comes after the county dismissed multiple concessions from the city and put MSD’s revamp of the local sewer system on hold in protest of the city’s rules. With a federal mandate looming, both sides agree a resolution is needed soon to avoid costly fines from the federal government.

For many across the city and county, the conflict is understandably confusing. The debate has often been mired down by biased media reports and political talking points that obfuscate the issue. Jargon referencing “responsible bidder,” “local hire,” “local preference,” unions, apprenticeship programs, a pre-apprenticeship fund and contractors make it even more difficult to grasp what is going on.

Cutting through the politics, here is what the responsible bidder rules actually do and why the city and county seem incapable of compromise.

What is responsible bidder?

It’s a city ordinance that essentially forces MSD contractors to adopt job training measures known as apprenticeship programs and pay for a pre-apprenticeship fund. By requiring the training options, the city hopes workers will be able to improve their skills and successfully transition to other jobs once their MSD work is finished.

Apprenticeship programs take workers through extensive on-the-job and classroom-based training in which they can hone their skills in a specific craft, such as electrical or plumbing work. Because workers get paid for their work while participating in an apprenticeship, the programs are typically characterized as an “earn-while-you-learn” model.

The pre-apprenticeship fund will put money toward programs that will teach newcomers basic skills, such as math and reading, so they can eventually move up to an apprenticeship program.

The rules don’t apply to every MSD contractor. Contracts worth less than $400,000, which make up roughly half of MSD’s sewer revamp, are exempted.

What about local hire and local preference?

Those are ordinances separate from responsible bidder that give preference to Cincinnati-based businesses. They try to keep MSD contracts within local companies.

What’s the conflict about?

The conflict is between Cincinnati and Hamilton County, which jointly run MSD. The Democrat-controlled city supports the rules, while the Republican-controlled county opposes them.

The city and county also dispute which governing body can set policy for MSD. Under a 1968 agreement, the county owns and funds MSD, and the city operates and maintains it. City Council argues the agreement allows the city to set policy for MSD, but the county disagrees. Both sides acknowledge the set-up is far from ideal.

So, did the city’s rules halt MSD projects?

No. Nothing in the city’s ordinances forces MSD projects to stop. County commissioners singlehandedly halted MSD projects in protest of the city’s rules. If it were up to the city, work would continue today.

Why are these projects so important?

By federal decree, the city needs to revamp the sewer system to bring it up to environmentally safe standards. The project will cost $3.2 billion over 15-20 years, making it one of the most expensive in the city’s history.

If the city and county don’t carry on with the revamp soon, the federal government will begin issuing fines. By some guesses, the fines could begin rolling in by the end of the year.

Why does a majority of City Council support responsible bidder?

Councilman Chris Seelbach, the Democrat who championed the rules, says they will boost local employment and create more job training options for the city’s struggling workforce.

Other Democrats on council agree, although some, like Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, believe the ordinance is “imperfect.”

Does responsible bidder benefit workers?

Some research suggests it would.

The left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) in a December report argued apprenticeship programs provide an opportunity to revitalize the U.S. workforce.

“By 2020, America is projected to experience a shortage of 3 million workers with associate’s degrees or higher and 5 million workers with technical certificates and credentials,” the report claimed. “Compounding our inadequate workforce development system, research shows that employers are now spending less on training than they have in the past. At the same time, industry surveys show that a lack of qualified workers is a top concern for many employers.”

Citing a 2012 study from Mathematica Policy Research, CAP estimated apprenticeship programs alone can boost a worker’s lifetime earnings and benefits by more than $300,000. Over 36 years of employment, that’s an average gain of nearly $8,400 a year.

Why do county commissioners oppose the rules?

In terms of policy, county commissioners say the responsible bidder rules favor unions and burden businesses.

On a legal basis, the county argues the city’s responsible bidder rules conflict with state law and the local hire and preference rules enforce unconstitutional geographic preferences.

Does responsible bidder actually favor unions?

Since unions tend to offer better and more apprenticeship programs, yes.

But the rules don’t exclude non-union businesses from participating. For example, Ohio Valley Associated Builders and Contractors maintains some non-union apprenticeship programs that would qualify under the law.

Still, most of the union favoritism debate centered around a regulation the city actually offered to give up. Specifically, under current rules employers are only eligible to contract with MSD if they have apprenticeship programs that have graduated at least one person a year for the past five years. In October, Seelbach offered to strip the mandate and replace it with an incentive program. The county seemed unmoved by the proposal.

What about businesses? Does responsible bidder burden them?

By requiring businesses to adopt apprenticeship programs and put 10 cents for each hour of labor into a pre-apprenticeship fund, the law certainly places more regulations on businesses. Whether the requirements are a burden is subjective.

John Morris, president of the Ohio Valley Associated Builders and Contractors and an opponent of the law, told CityBeat the pre-apprenticeship fund’s requirement will increase business costs by $2-3 million over 15-20 years.

Citing MSD estimates for the cost of labor, Rob Richardson, regional manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said the fund will cost businesses $1.5 million.

Even if someone accepts Morris’ estimate, the requirement adds up to at most 0.1 percent of the $3.2 billion project.

More broadly, some supporters of the city’s rules question whether placing a burden on businesses is innately a bad thing. The basic point of government regulations is to make the economy and businesses work better for the public. In that sense, regulations are always going to burden businesses to some extent.

For example, financial regulations burden big banks and financial institutions. But many Americans agree the regulations are necessary to avoid another financial crisis like the one that plunged the country into the Great Recession.

Still, critics argue the extra regulations would increase the cost of business, and the impact could ultimately be felt by MSD ratepayers.

Why don’t the city and county just compromise?

They kind of tried, but it seems the philosophical split between Hamilton County Republicans and Cincinnati Democrats is too strong to reach a substantial agreement.

The city, for example, has offered multiple concessions to the county. In May, City Council modified the law to ease some requirements and add an exemption for contracts worth less than $400,000, which covers half of the contracts involved in MSD’s sewer revamp. In October, Seelbach offered to replace a strict mandate with a looser incentive program. Seelbach also told CityBeat on Feb. 6 that he would consider raising the contract exemption from $400,000 to $750,000.

In return, the county rejected the concessions and instead offered to establish aspirational inclusion goals and some funding for local job training programs — as long as the city repealed its rules altogether.

Which side would win the court battle?

It’s hard to say. Both sides — and their lawyers — seem pretty confident about their legal standing.

So what’s next?

At the current rate, it looks like the city and county are heading to court. Whether the process involves a full-on legal battle or mediation between the city and county’s lawyers remains uncertain, but it’s clear something will eventually have to give.

This blog post will be regularly updated as the situation develops.

 
 
by German Lopez 02.12.2014
Posted In: News, Parking, City Council, Mayor at 04:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)
 
 
news1_parkingmeters

What Is Cranley’s Parking Plan?

Proposal could increase parking enforcement, hours and rates

Mayor John Cranley on Feb. 12 officially unveiled his plan for Cincinnati’s parking meters, lots and garages, providing the first clear option for the city’s parking system since the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority agreed to halt the previous plan.

The proposal seeks to effectively replace the previous administration’s parking privatization plan, which outsourced the city’s parking assets to the Port Authority and several private companies, and maintain local control of the city’s parking assets.

Here’s a breakdown of the plan and all its finer details.

What is Cranley’s parking plan?

It’s a plan for Cincinnati’s parking meters, lots and garages. More specifically, Cranley calls his proposal a “framework” that focuses on upgrading the city’s parking meters and keeps City Council’s control of parking rates and hours.

Cranley’s plan, based on a Feb. 7 memo from Walker Parking Consultants, achieves his goals in a few ways:

• The city would issue bonds, backed by future parking revenues, to upgrade all parking meters to accept credit card payments.

• The amount of enforcement officers under the city’s payroll would increase to 15, up from five, to provide greater coverage of the city’s parking meters. (Currently, a few areas, including major hubs like the University of Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine, are effectively unenforced for two to five hours a day, according to Walker.)

• Neighborhood meter rates would go up by 25 cents to 75 cents an hour. Downtown rates would remain at $2 an hour.

• Sundays and holidays remain free.

Cranley says the underlying idea is to maintain a few key principles, particularly local control over rates and hours. He cautions Walker’s proposal, including expanded enforcement hours, could change with public input and as City Council puts together the final plan.

Does the plan let people use smartphones to pay for parking meters?

No. Cranley says the upgraded meters will support the technology, but it will be up to council to decide whether it’s enabled in the future.

Smartphone capability is a double-edged sword: It introduces its own set of costs, including shorter battery life for meters. It also allows customers to avoid under- and overpaying at parking meters, which decreases citation and meter revenues. But smartphone access also increases ease of use, which could lead to higher revenues by making it easier to pay.

The parking privatization plan promised to provide smartphone access at all parking meters. The previous administration and Port Authority championed the feature as key to increasing convenience and revenue.

OK, that explains the parking meters. What about the parking garages?

Cranley’s plan makes two changes to garages:

• The Port Authority would take over Fountain Square South Garage. The Port would be required to cover expenses for the garage, but any net revenue could be used on projects within the city.

• The city would issue bonds, backed by future parking revenues, to build a garage at 7th and Broadway streets.

Otherwise, things remain the same as today.

In other words, the city would be on the hook for parking garage repairs and upgrades, which Walker estimates would cost roughly $8 million in capital expenses over the next five years.

But the city would also continue directly receiving around $2 million per year in net revenue from parking garages, according to Walker.

Still, the city isn’t allowed under state law to use the revenue from parking garages for anything outside the parking system.

The parking privatization plan tried to do away with the restriction by putting the Port Authority in charge of garages. State law allows agencies like the Port to tap into garage revenues for other uses, such as development projects.

But without the previous administration’s plan, Cranley claims the Port Authority declined to take over more facilities beyond Fountain Square South Garage. Given the rejection, Cranley says its up to council to figure out another way to leverage garage revenues beyond putting them back in the parking system.

What does Cranley’s plan do about the thousands of parking tickets already owed to the city?

Nothing. By Cranley’s own admission, the city needs to do a better job collecting what its owed. But he says that’s something City Council will have to deal with in the future.

So why did Cranley oppose the parking privatization plan?

Cranley vehemently opposed giving up local control of the city’s parking assets. He warned that outsourcing meters to the Port Authority and private companies would create a for-profit incentive to ratchet up parking rates and enforcement.

The previous administration disputed Cranley’s warnings. They pointed out an advisory board, chaired by four Port Authority appointees and one city appointee, would need to unanimously agree on rate and hour changes, and the changes could be vetoed by the city manager.

Without any changes from the advisory board, the 30-year privatization plan hiked downtown parking meter rates by 25 cents every three years and neighborhood rates by 25 cents every six years. The plan also expanded enforcement hours to 8 a.m.-9 p.m. in Over-the-Rhine and parts of downtown.

Still, City Council would lose its control of rates and hours under the privatization plan. Cranley and other opponents argued the outsourcing scheme could insulate the parking system from public — and voter — input.

Cranley also opposed the privatization plan’s financial arrangement.

Under the old deal, the city would receive a lump sum of $85 million and annual installments of $3 million, as long as required expenses, such as costly garage upgrades or repairs, were met.

In comparison, the city currently gets roughly $3 million in net revenue from parking meters and another $2 million in net revenue from parking garages. (As noted earlier, the parking garage revenue can only be used for parking expenses.)

Cranley characterizes the lump sum as “borrowing from the future” because it uses upfront money that could instead be taken in by the city as annual revenue.

Related: Compare Cranley’s plan with the parking privatization plan.

Why does Cranley think his proposal is necessary?

It solidifies the death of the parking privatization plan. That’s important to begin the process of legally dismantling the previous plan.

The plan also increases net parking meter revenues from roughly $3 million to $6 million in the next budget year and more than $7 million per year within five years, according to Walker’s original estimates. (The estimates are likely too high because they assumed evening hours would expand around the University of Cincinnati, Short Vine in Corryville, Over-the-Rhine and downtown. But Cranley shelved the expansion of hours, with no estimates for how the changes will affect revenues.)

Since parking meter revenue, unlike garage revenue, can be used for non-parking expenses, the extra revenue could help plug the $20 million gap in the $370 million operating budget.

Why do some people oppose Cranley’s plan?

Some people supported the parking privatization plan. They saw the lump sum as a great opportunity to invest in development projects around the city. Without the lump sum, critics claim Cranley’s plan accepts all the pain of the previous plan — increased enforcement, rates and hours — for very little gain, even though the city would get more annual revenue and upgraded parking meters and garages.

Politics are also involved. After the contentious streetcar debate, there’s not much Cranley can do without some critics speaking out.

When will Cranley’s plan go into effect?

City Council first has to approve Cranley’s plan for it to become law. Council will likely take up and debate the plan at the Neighborhood Committee on Feb. 24 and set a more concrete timeline after that.

This blog post will be regularly updated as more information becomes available. Latest update: Feb. 19.

 
 
 
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