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:
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.
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.
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 seller’s 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.
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.
Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld has resolved his petition problems and will appear on the ballot for reelection this November.
“The (Hamilton County Board of Elections) confirmed last night we have more than enough signatures to be placed on the ballot,” Sittenfeld wrote in an email.
Sally Krisel, deputy director of the Board of Elections, says the board has so far verified more than 900 signatures out of the 1,500 Sittenfeld turned in. Council candidates need 500 to get on the ballot.
Sittenfeld was one of two candidates who faced petition problems last week. In his case, petitions were found to have crossed-out dates with corrections written on the back, which election officials said might disqualify hundreds of signatures. In response, Sittenfeld renewed his petition drive.
In a Facebook post this morning, Sittenfeld thanked a 93-year-old family friend, a former teacher, City Council candidates and other volunteers for helping with the effort.
Mike Moroski, who was told his original batch of petitions fell 46 signatures short, wrote on Twitter that he turned in more than 1,100 signatures this morning. In a statement, Moroski thanked his team and participants
for helping him collect the signatures, which the Board of Elections will now need to verify.
The deadline for turning in City Council petitions is Aug. 22. Once the Board of Elections finishes verifying the numbers, it will release the full slate of candidates.