City Council meeting displays public’s distaste for budget cuts

Cincinnati City Council members met for a public hearing of the Budget and Finance Committee in Lower Price Hill Wednesday night to discuss several council members’ counter-proposal to City Manager Milton Dohoney’s 2011 Mid-Year Reduction Plan.

The proposed motion, signed by council members Chris Bortz, Leslie Ghiz, Wayne Lippert, Amy Murray, and Charlie Winburn, would pass budget cuts—which largely include expected savings from job position vacancies, department reorganization, and service funding reduction—totaling savings of $5.1 million for 2011 and $8.5 million for 2012. The most notable exception in the motion would be retaining the 44 police officers that Dohoney proposed letting go (memo with complete list of numbers).

Wednesday night’s meeting was scheduled to obtain feedback from the public, as well as to vote on the 5 council members’ proposal.

In total, 34 citizens signed up to speak to the Council. Most of the citizens spoke against civil service cuts, especially regarding health care-related cuts. Children, parents, and nurses all came to speak about how important nurse services are in schools, pointing out the high rates of ADHD, asthma, and other disorders that could go untreated if school nurses were let go. One parent came to tears, saying, “My child almost died.” Another noted that if nurses disappeared from schools it would be a “lawsuit waiting to happen.”

City Council image by Zachary Schunn for UrbanCincy.

Others spoke passionately about health services, from the Cincinnati Health Department, which was scheduled for cuts, to the city’s dental access program, to health clinics. One nurse noted that the Health Department would be self-sustaining due to federal revenue by 2014, and that cutting funding would be a short-sighted move that would not only hurt citizens, but would make it difficult to build-up the department when new funding arrived.

Most citizens’ arguments were straight to the point, with one woman saying that “without Northside Health Center, I would probably be dead today…. I’m just asking that you give people a chance to live.”

A few others spoke for the homeless or in support of Cincinnati’s recreation centers and pools. Several spoke in favor of the Office of Environmental Quality, which was slated to be closed, with its services shifting to other departments. Said one citizen, “Shutting OEQ is like killing a goose that lays golden eggs.” Another pointed out the revenue that the OEQ has brought in from reduced landfill costs and federal grant money, and argued that the office’s success should lead to its expansion, not its elimination.

Notably, only one person spoke against police layoffs (which were not part of the proposed motion). No one spoke of the burdens of high tax rates, with several speaking in favor of higher fees (such as trash collection fees) and increased property and income taxes. One neighborhood representative suggested the income tax rate should be raised from 2.1% to 3.1% to help close the deficit, and another noted that the rich needed to give back to the city.

A few commended the council’s hard work in performing a “difficult task,” and others asked that they ignore their differences and work together. One citizen brought the book, “The Three Little Pigs,” and recounted its lesson of cooperation to the Council.

Overall, the attending citizens appeared largely opposed to the budget cuts. A few citizens heckled Chris Bortz, who dominated the council members’ discussion following the speakers, as well as Charlie Winburn. Bortz asked numerous questions of Milton Dohoney, which at one point prompted Dohoney’s reply: “I’m not trying to play politics or make headlines. I’m trying to run the city government.”

Councilwomen Leslie Ghiz and Amy Murray were noticeably absent from the meeting. Councilman Bortz later noted that they were “with their children,” to which Wendell Young replied: “I left my wife in the hospital… [and] I’d like to do what I came here to do.”

A vote proceeded over the objections of some council members, most notably Chris Bortz, who claimed that they “had two weeks” to vote on the resolution and the meeting had purposefully been scheduled for a day when Ghiz and Murray could not attend. (The motion was dated August 15. However, it was later found that the motion had been filed with the clerk only Tuesday, just ahead of the scheduled Budget and Finance Committee meeting.)

With Ghiz and Murray absent, the motion failed with three supporting and four against.

The meeting ended with bickering over “politics,” with Councilmen Thomas and Bortz arguing over which side was “gaming” the other. Frustrated, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls abruptly ended the meeting.

Citizens, obviously frustrated by the length of the nearly three-hour-long meeting, left the building largely rejoicing that the cuts to social services had failed, but knowing that a similar motion may be re-filed and that they would have to return—again—to argue against the cuts.

  • Joe

    Where do you propose the cuts be made? Public safetly is essential to rebuilding the urban core’s image which took quite a hit a few weeks ago with the shootings on Fountain Square and at Findley Market. Increased layoffs in this for police are not the answer and raising taxes is in my opinion out of the question with many city residents and businesses experiancing tough times. Cuts have to come from somewhere, I would think the Mayor could give up his car allowance in the spirit of shared sacrifice but I guess I was expecting to much. The mayor, city council, and the city manager should all present a good example and take pay cuts until this longstanding deficit issue is resolved.

  • Joe

    I was also hoping that someone on Urban Cincy or another Cincinnati blog could discuss the new Short Vine Mixed Use building which is proposed on the site of Schiel School. I saw your comments on the Enquirer’s website and think this could be a development that most everyone could find something positive in. Yes it does demolish an historic school building with a renouned architect but I feel it brings the form of development we are looking for as well as a moderately good design which could become an significant Cincinnati landmark in 50 to 100 years.

  • Joe:

    I’m no expert on this, so take my comments more as proposals than solutions.

    I agree the “image” took a hit, at least to those unfamiliar with the safety improvements in OTR and downtown, but crime itself has been down most of the last decade. Improving police service helps, but the real key to solving crime is the presence of people in general. What’s more likely to happen: someone stealing a car when no one’s on the street, or when 100 people are on the street?

    This is WHY crime has fallen in OTR and downtown: because more people are populating these areas. Thus, working to further spark development by improving mass transit and easing development restrictions (ie, reform the planning code) will do more for crime than a few police officers, IMO. Police don’t prevent crime as much as they catch the criminals.

    That said, I think everyone agrees the larger the police force, the better. But I’m sure you know the situation is a lot more complicated than it appears on the surface. Dohoney is proposing police cuts partly in order to obtain a federal grant to bring more money into the police department. Kinda backward, but hey it’s the way the federal govt. works now.

    I disagree that tax increases will not fly. There were many low-income people at the meeting saying they would support tax increases, even though they’d have to scrounge to find the money for them. Why? Because they know their services are on the line.

    Personally, I think the whole tax system in our country needs to be reformed and localized. Local govts. are too bare-boned, and income taxes should increase modestly (0.5% to 1%) to help cover the deficit. A true progressive tax format should be used, as it is in most of the country, so the poor are not paying the same amount as the rich in this city. And property taxes should be phased out altogether, as they rely on a fickle source of income, to help support re-population of the city. Income tax increases will counter-balance the removal of property taxes, so all service funding comes from a somewhat more stable, and less arbitrary (think of property appraisals), source.

    Business taxes and development costs should be kept low to entice companies to move back into the city. And real investment in mass transit should further entice re-development of the core and surrounding neighborhoods.

    On the spending side, obviously in the short-term cuts need to be made, but in the long-term the whole budgeting process needs to be reworked. Department spending shouldn’t be based upon set dollar amounts that change by vote every year, but by floating percentages tied to revenue that remain as parts of 5- or 10-year plans. The biggest problem with our deficits is that spending and revenue are not tied together. Thus, where possible flexible spending amounts should be tied to portions of the revenue, ie. 10% of revenue goes to transit funding, 5% to recreation and pools, 5% to parks, etc. (I have no clue what the actual numbers would be… just making a point.)

    And “investment” versus “year-to-year budgetary” spending needs to be differentiated, so that new ideas are not seen as costs but “investments” that will serve to help our city grow. (Just as such costs are seen in a business…)

    Really, while I support what city council is doing, I’m disappointed that no one has had the courage to offer new solutions, instead of the same-old failed offerings. Times like these are when real reform should happen, and I’m saddened that no one has come up with ANY ideas, let alone good ones.

    On another note: agreed on your small, symbolic cuts for politicians. It’d be mostly a PR move, but hey it wouldn’t hurt.

  • Wow. Just realized how long the last post was, lol. My bad.

    My comments on the Short Vine development were just gut reactions, and my feelings are very much in line with yours. I haven’t seen enough about the development to offer real opinions on it.

  • Not only is the population down, calls for police are down significantly since 1997 (hard to find these numbers on a year to year basis). Add in all the techno gizmos the police have and the total number of workers should decline. At least that’s how it works in the private sector. Increased efficiencies through tech, dwindling demand = smaller workforce.

  • @Quimbob:

    More or less agreed. Layoffs are never desired, but you’re right that the police should be able to do much more with less, and I think that’s exactly what Dohoney is expecting.

    What is going unsaid in the media is that Dohoney’s planned layoffs are meant to be TEMPORARY.