Today's an expensive day for Councilman Chris Seelbach.
That's because Seelbach is writing a check today for $1,218.59 to the city of Cincinnati to get local hyper-conservative "watchdog" group COAST to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that Seelbach's May trip to Washington, D.C., to accept an award for instigating positive change was an unlawful expenditure of taxpayer dollars.
As a refresher, we're talking about the trip when Seelbach was one of 10 community leaders around the nation selected to receive the Harvey Milk Champion of Change award for his accomplishments in protecting the city's LGBT community — particularly through his efforts to extend equal partner health insurance to all city employees, create an LGBT liaison in the city's fire and police departments and requiring anyone accepting city funding to follow a non-discrimination policy — a national recognition of championing Cincinnati's progression toward social justice in the past few years.
In an email from his campaign, he says that the city's law department wants to move forward with the lawsuit because the allegations are so frivolous, but Seelbach decided to just use his own personal money to prevent the city from having to spend close to $30,000 of the same taxpayer money COAST is complaining about to prove that they're wrong.
On Aug. 28, Chris Finney, chief crusader at COAST, sent a letter to the office of the city solicitor alleging that the city had committed a "misapplication of corporate funds" by sponsoring Chris Seelbach's May trip to Washington, D.C., complaining that Seelbach and his staffers "upgraded" their hotel rooms.
Curp says that the rooms weren't only never upgraded — Seelbach and his staffers shared rooms — but that the councilman didn't even request reimbursement for several other eligible expense, like parking, meals and taxi fares — and flew out of Louisville, Ky., to take advantage of cheaper airfare.
City Solicitor John Curp's five-page response to Finney, he refutes every claim made by COAST and ends the letter by citing an Ohio Supreme Court case that effectively ruled that private citizens (like Chris Finney and all the other COASTers) constantly contesting official acts and expenditures doesn't benefit the city and should only be allowed when it could cause serious public injury if ignored. Here's Curp's full response:
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.
Councilman Chris Seelbach last night helped a gunshot victim before the man was taken to the hospital. Seelbach posted on Facebook that he was watching The Voice with his partner, Craig Schultz, when they heard gun shots. They went to their window and saw a man walking across Melindy Alley. When Seelbach asked what happened, the man replied, “I was shot.” Seelbach then ran down and held his hand on the wound for 10 to 15 minutes before emergency services showed up. “We have a lot of work to do Cincinnati,” Seelbach wrote on Facebook. Police told The Cincinnati Enquirer the victim seemed to be chosen at random.
Pure Romance yesterday announced it will remain in Ohio and move to downtown Cincinnati despite a decision from Gov. John Kasich’s administration not grant tax credits to the $100 million-plus company, which hosts private adult parties and sells sex toys, lotions and other “relationship enhancement” products. The reason for Pure Romance’s decision: The city, which was pushing for Pure Romance despite the state’s refusal, upped its tax break offer from $353,204 over six years to $698,884 over 10 years. Kasich previously justified his administration’s refusal with claims that Pure Romance just didn’t fall into an industry that Ohio normally supports, such as logistics and energy. But Democrats argue the tax credits were only denied because of a prudish, conservative perspective toward Pure Romance’s product lineup.
City Council yesterday unanimously rejected restoring car allowances, paid work days and office budgets for the city government’s top earners, including the mayor, city manager and council members. Councilman Seelbach said he hopes the refusal sends “a signal to the administration that this Council is not interested in making the wealthy more wealthy or giving more executive perks to people who already make hundred-plus thousands of dollars.” The restorations were part of $6.7 million in budget restorations proposed by City Manager Milton Dohoney. The city administration previously argued the car allowances were necessary to maintain promises to hired city directors and keep the city competitive in terms of recruitment, but council members called the restorations out of touch.
The Cincinnati area’s jobless rate dropped from 6.9 percent in August 2012 to 6.7 percent in August this year as the economy added 11,500 jobs, more than the 3,000 required to keep up with annual population growth.
The former chief financial officer for local bus service Metro is receiving a $50,000 settlement from the agency after accusing her ex-employer of retaliating against her for raising concerns about issues including unethical behavior and theft. Metro says it’s not admitting to breaking the law and settled to avoid litigation.
Ohio House Democrats say state Republicans denied access to an empty hearing room for an announcement of legislation that would undo recently passed anti-abortion restrictions. But a spokesperson for the House Republican caucus said the speaker of the House did try to accommodate the announcement and called accusations of malicious intent “absurd.” The accusations come just one week after the state’s public broadcasting group pulled cameras from an internal meeting about abortion, supposedly because the hearing violated the rules. The legislation announced by Democrats yesterday undoes regulations and funding changes passed in the state budget that restrict abortion and defund family planning clinics, but the Democratic bill has little chance of passing the Republican-controlled legislature.
Ohioans will be able to pick from an average of 46 plans when new health insurance marketplaces launch on Oct. 1 under Obamacare, and the competition will push prices down, according to a new report. CityBeat covered Obamacare’s marketplaces and efforts to promote and obstruct them in further detail here.
Ohio lawmakers intend to pursue another ban on Internet cafes that would be insusceptible to referendum, even as petitioners gather signatures to get the original ban on the November 2014 ballot. State officials argue the ban is necessary because Internet cafes, which offer slot-machine-style games on computer terminals, are hubs of illegal gambling activity. But Internet cafe owners say what they offer isn’t gambling because customers always get something of value — phone or Internet time — in exchange for their money.
Ohio tea party groups can’t find candidates to challenge Republican incumbents.
The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed the first openly gay U.S. appeals court judge.
The Cincinnati area is among the top 20 places for surgeons, according to consumer finance website ValuePenguin.
A graphic that’s gone viral calls Ohio the “nerdiest state.”
Insects apparently have personalities, and some love to explore.
City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee on Tuesday unanimously stripped budget restorations that would have reinstated car allowances, paid work days and office budgets for the city government’s top earners, including the mayor, city manager and council members.
“It seems disingenuous that we would restore funding to the top earners in our city for car allowances and cost-saving days and also show, as we did last June, that we are willing to make sacrifices along with our employees,” Councilman Chris Seelbach said at the committee meeting. “When we ask people not to take a raise for five years or to not take a car allowance, it’s important for us to also make sacrifices.”
Seelbach added that he hopes City Council’s decision will send “a signal to the administration that this Council is not interested in making the wealthy more wealthy or giving more executive perks to people who already make hundred-plus thousands of dollars.”
The city previously eliminated some paid work days and car allowances as part of broader cuts to balance the city’s operating budget without laying off cops or firefighters. But City Manager Milton Dohoney on Sept. 15 asked council members to use higher-than-projected revenues to undo $6.7 million in cuts, including $26,640 in car allowances for city directors, $18,000 in council members’ office budgets and $26,200 in paid work days for council members and the mayor.
City spokesperson Meg Olberding told CityBeat on Friday that restoring the car allowances is a matter of basic fairness and keeping both the city’s word and competitiveness. She said the car allowances are typically part of compensation packages offered in other cities that compete with Cincinnati for recruitment. The allowances, she added, were also promised to city directors as part of their pay packages when they were first hired for the job.
But some council members, particularly Seelbach, called the restorations out of touch.
“I’m more concerned with the garbage worker who’s making barely enough to get by and would love to get a quarter-on-the-hour raise, much less a $5,000 car allowance,” Seelbach told CityBeat on Friday. “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.”
The City Council motions passed on Tuesday remove the provisions for car allowances, paid work days and City Council office budgets but keep earlier proposals from council members, including restorations to human services funding and city parks.
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.
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.
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.
“I’m more concerned with the garbage worker who’s 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 haven’t received a raise in years would be thrilled to split $22,000, even if the sum doesn’t 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 mayor’s 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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: