EDITORIAL: Localizing Operating Costs for Streetcar Sets Dangerous Precedent

On Thursday morning Mayor John Cranley (D) called a press conference for a “major” announcement. He was joined by leadership of labor unions representing city workers, along with Councilman Kevin Flynn (C).

So what was the big news? Well, Mayor Cranley had announced that he would be willing to continue the Cincinnati Streetcar project that has already received direct voter approval twice, support of City Council, appropriated funds for its entire project cost, and began construction, if streetcar supporters could come up with a private funding commitment that would cover all operating costs for the first phase of the system over the next 30 years.

Oh yeah, and he asked that those boosters kindly secure that $60-80 million commitment in one week’s time.

Cincinnati Streetcar Construction Work at Government SquareUtility relocation work proceeded near Government Square on November 16, but whether that work will ever resume is up to Mayor Cranley and Councilmembers David Mann and Kevin Flynn. Photograph by Travis Estell for UrbanCincy.

Aside from the unprecedented request, a first of its kind for any transit program in America, it is troubling for two other key reasons. First, it sets a dangerous new precedent for how city government operates in Cincinnati, and secondly it is an obscene double standard for transit projects to force such a financial commitment.

Dangerous Precedent
With labor union representatives at his side, Mayor Cranley continually stated how he has an obligation to deliver the basic services we all cherish, and said that Cincinnati has a difficult enough time meeting current financial liabilities, much less new ones. As a result, he demanded that the private sector and streetcar supporters, should they actually support the project, put their skin in the game and fund its operations for the next 30 years.

That is all great campaign rhetoric, which Cranley used brilliantly leading up to the November 5 election, but it is completely irrational.

If the City of Cincinnati cannot afford any new financial liabilities, then will Mayor Cranley and his administration be requesting operating plans and financing for those new efforts from anything that comes to his desk? He has stated he wants to hire 200 new police officers, but who will shoulder the ongoing financial liability that will place on the City’s operating budget? Cranley has said he does not want to raise taxes, so that leaves only making cuts elsewhere to free up money for such a huge expansion of public safety forces.

Being and true and blue west sider that Mt. Lookout resident John Cranley is, he also supports the proposed Westwood Square project. While UrbanCincy also wholeheartedly supports that project and the form-based code it was borne out of, we have never seen a financing plan for it or any estimate for what its ongoing costs will be to the City. If “no new liabilities” means “no new liabilities” then we are concerned that Mayor Cranley’s new approach to governance will jeopardize the Westwood Square project.

Westwood SquareMayor Cranley’s dangerous new precedent might put the advancement of such projects as Westwood Square at-risk. If not, it would create a massive double standard. Image provided.

In addition to the Cincinnati Streetcar, 200 new police officers and Westwood Square, this new heavy-handed approach will also jeopardize the Wasson Way Trail, future phases of Smale Riverfront Park, improvements to the city’s waste collection operations, the rebuild of the Western Hills Viaduct, completion of the Ohio River Trail, and development of the Eastern Corridor. This new standard will also put at risk what the Cranley Administration seems to hold as the Holy Grail of all local projects – the MLK Interchange.

Should we also expect a move by the Cranley Administration to stop all construction activities and spending on the Waldvogel Viaduct that is currently being rebuilt? That project has never submitted a financial report that estimates a 30-year operating cost, much less any private sources to cover those ongoing financial liability costs.

Double Standard
UrbanCincy certainly hopes that this is in fact not a new standard protocol at City Hall, because it will put a stop to virtually everything the City does and bring the delivery of public services to a screeching halt. If that is the case, then Mayor Cranley’s olive branch to streetcar supporters is nothing more than a massive double standard.

Virtually every project the city undertakes adds liability costs. The Parking Modernization & Lease plan would have, of course, added none and in fact reduced future liability costs, but Mayor Cranley and his administration were quick to kill that deal as well.

And while this move by Mayor Cranley is typical of anti-transit forces around the country, it is also unacceptable. The user fee for roadways – the federal gas tax – has not been raised since 1993 and covers approximately 51% of the annual costs of maintaining our roadways. Public safety departments collect nowhere close to the amount of revenue they demand in terms of their costs to operate. Our schools, libraries, cultural institutions and parks all require taxpayer support, but such demands are not placed on them, nor should they.

Had Smale Riverfront Park been mandated by Mayor Cranley’s administration to provide 30 years’ worth of operating funds upfront in binding agreements before he approved any capital dollars for it to get started, then that project would most likely still not be started to this day. Instead, under normal governance, Smale Riverfront Park moved forward with its construction, and then capable leaders such as Willie Carden, Jr. were tasked with developing innovative and sustainable mechanisms to fund in over its lifespan.

It is unfortunate the Mayor Cranley and his administration have cornered Cincinntians into this position. It is unreasonable to ask our business community to fund public projects that should be funded by the public agency that committed to doing the project in the first place. Fortunately Cincinnati has proactive thinking leaders like Eric Avner and the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation working to meet the unreasonable demands of Mayor Cranley.

But should the business community deliver on this unreasonable request to fund the project’s operations for the next 30 years; then those investors should receive the returns the investment generates. The same is true if city residents want only those along the line to pay for its operations. If the costs must be localized, then so should its benefits.

Quite simply, residents elsewhere in the city who do not want to take on any risk deserve none of the returns.

The center city already subsidizes the public services provided to the city’s neighborhoods. If Mayor Cranley wants to continue on this damaging path of pitting neighborhoods against one another, then we will all quickly realize just how much we are dependent on one another economically.

In 2011, for example, the City of Cincinnati collected 71% of all city tax revenues from just eight neighborhoods: Downtown, Over-the-Rhine, West End, Queensgate, CUF, Corryville, Avondale and Clifton – collectively and colloquially as “Downtown” and “Uptown”.

The health and success of Downtown and Uptown is critically important to the overall health and success of the entire city. While many residents may believe that too much is invested in those areas, the reality is that those eight neighborhoods pay far more in taxes than they ever receive.

UrbanCincy is calling for an end to the divisiveness and to fully invest in our city’s future. Finish the Cincinnati Streetcar.

Cincinnati Breaks Ground on $16M Net Zero Energy, LEED Platinum Police HQ

City officials and neighborhood leaders celebrated the ground breaking for Cincinnati’s new $16 million Police District 3 Headquarters on Monday.

Located in Westwood, the 39,000 square-foot facility will replace what city and police officials consider an antiquated 105-year-old facility in East Price Hill.

While the City of Cincinnati has built or begun construction on several new fire stations, including one nearby in Westwood, this is the first new police station built in the city since in more than four decades.

“It used to be that when cities built civic buildings like this, they were places the community could come together,” Mayor Mark Mallory (D) said. “With District 3, we’re doing that again. We want people to come here and feel comfortable coming here with their neighbors.”

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According to city officials, the new police headquarters will serve 14 neighborhoods from a central location on the west side. A site that was specifically chosen due to the input provided during Plan Cincinnati.

To help further strengthen the concept of the police headquarters also serving as a community gathering place, city officials have ensured that the new facility will include community gathering space and public art. It is an approach to community building similar to what was done, with rave reviews, by Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) when rebuilding its entire building portfolio.

The location is just a block away from Dater High School and Western Hills High School and sits in what was a vacant outlot of a suburban-style strip mall. Site plans show that the new facility will be built at the street and oriented toward the sidewalk.

While Cincinnati has been seen as a leader in green building when it comes to the rebuilding of CPS, its tax abatements for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rehabilitation and new construction, and public building in general, this will be one of the Queen City’s greenest buildings.

The development team of Messer Construction, Triversity Construction and Emersion Design are aiming to achieve a LEED Platinum certification – the highest possible rating under the LEED system.

The development team also says that it has designed the structure to achieve Net Zero Energy Consumption through its geothermal mechanical systems, high performance building envelope and solar panels. The new Police District 3 Headquarters will also reduce potable water consumption by 30% thanks to on-site bio-retention cells and strategic use of site design materials.

City leadership also expects the project will reach 36.2% Small Business Enterprise (SBE) inclusion. If such a number is achieved, it would make it the highest percentage of SBE participation on any city project to-date.

According to project officials, construction is expected to take about a year-and-a-half and could start welcoming members of the community as early as July 2015.

Roxanne Qualls and School Officials Call for Pedestrian Improvements Near Schools

Walking does not seem like a difficult task for city residents where sidewalks are plentiful and signals control traffic allowing people to walk safely across the street. However; this is not always the case in neighborhoods around the city.

Some intersections lack basic improvements such as crosswalks, signals, good sidewalks or no sidewalks at all. These problems are likely a minor nuisance for experienced walkers but from the viewpoint of children who walk to school it could mean the difference between a safe walk to school and imminent danger.

One such problem intersection is the Five Points Intersection in Evanston. The intersection of Montgomery, Woodburn and St. Leger is already seeing redevelopment, as mentioned previously on UrbanCincy, however crosswalk enhancements aimed at making intersections like this easier to cross for school children have yet to be implemented.

Safe Routes
City leaders and school officials call for improvements to pedestrian networks around schools on August 26. Image provided.

According to Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) Safe Routes to School Coordinator, Carmen Burks, about 85% of Evanston school children walk to school.

Last year the city received $1 million in grant funding from the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) through the Safe Routes to Schools Program, which is aimed at encouraging students to walk to school through the development of walking school bus programs and by installing pedestrian improvements to make walking routes to school safer. The improvements must be within a mile of a school.

At the beginning of this school year, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (C) and CPS Superintendent Mary Ronan called for the city to finish implementing the pedestrian improvements listed from the grant.

The Five Points Intersection is among the 15 priority intersections on the list for improvement.

“If we had to give the implementation team a grade right now, it would be an ‘incomplete,’” Qualls said in a prepared statement.

Qualls says that she plans to introduce a motion directing the city administration to come back with a schedule for completing the remaining improvements before the beginning of the 2014 school year.

Ronan noted that the five-points intersection affects students from three schools – Evanston Academy, the Academy of World Languages, and Walnut Hills High School – with a combined enrollment of approximately 3,000 students.

“Many of these are relatively low-cost steps we can take to make big improvements in safety for our kids,” Qualls stated.

If all goes according to plan, work on the five-points intersection would likely begin next year and include new pedestrian signals. There is no time frame set for upgrades to the other 14 intersections identified for improvement.

Downtown Cincinnati Continues to See Annual Population, Tourism Gains

Backstage Entertainment DistrictCincinnati’s center city continued to experience gains in residents, employees, visitors, and safety in 2012, according to a new report released by Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI).

The newly released report is the annual compilation of facts and figures covering the Central Business District, Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton neighborhoods, and utilizes information gathered from industry and trade reports.

While the overall message of the 2012 State of Downtown Report was positive, growth in residential units and number of people living in the area began to level-off following years of strong growth.

In 2012, the report shows that the three neighborhoods added only 146 residential units last year. More than $100 million in residential projects, however, are either under construction or in pre-development stages, and will add hundreds of additional housing units to the center city over the coming years.

Transportation was another key element of the newly released report. The number of available parking spaces increased in 2012, and the cost of parking downtown decreased. Meanwhile, Metro continued the modernization of its bus fleet, but the Cincinnati Streetcar has seen continued delays.

“Cincinnati has become more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, but we still have work to do,” David Ginsburg, President/CEO of DCI, told the audience at the International Downtown Association Midwest Urban District Forum in Evanston, IL on May 21.

Two areas where the three neighborhoods showed particular strength were retail and hospitality. The downtown area added 59 businesses in 2012, bringing the retail occupancy rate to 96.2%. According to CBRE, the downtown area now has approximately three million square feet of retail space, which averages $89.49 in sales per square-foot.

Continuing on successes in recent years, the hospitality industry continued to post gains on its already impressive standing compared to other regional and national markets. The Central Business District, Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton now have 2,969 hotel rooms with the addition of 152 at the 21c Museum Hotel which opened this past November.

Downtown Population Trends
CBD Crime Statistics
The number of residential units downtown continues to grow, but at a slower pace than usual [TOP]. At the same time, crime rates have continued on their decade-long downward trajectory [BOTTOM].

According to the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau, these rooms boast a revenue per available room (RevPAR) of $77.37 – notably higher than the $65.17 RevPAR nationally. Downtown’s hotel rooms also had a better occupancy rate than anywhere else in the Cincinnati region, and matched the national average at just over 61%.

As a result of this hotel success, there are a handful of hotels either under construction or in the pre-development phases for this part of town, which would add hundreds of additional rooms. The realization of all of these plans may, however, put some existing hotels, like the aging 872-room Millennium Hotel, at risk due to the extra competition.

The 2012 State of Downtown report also noted a continued drop in all crime, with a 10% drop in violent crimes (Part 1) and a more than 8% drop in Part 2 crimes.

Ginsburg believes that the safety improvements come, in part, due to more activity taking place, and says that DCI stakeholders are working to continue those efforts.

“We’re turning pretty much everything downtown into a piece of art, and it’s putting feet on the streets.”

Cincinnati’s Recommended Budget Calls for 201 Layoffs, Program Eliminations

Cincinnati City Manager Milton Dohoney released his recommended budget that makes a large number of cuts to fill the $35 million budget gap left behind following the State of Ohio’s reduction of $26 million in funding to the City of Cincinnati.

The original budget proposal from Dohoney included $25.8 million from an upfront payment included in the parking lease and modernization plan, which would have also included $3 million in annual payments thereafter. This proposal was approved 5-4 by City Council, but was put on hold by a local court until opponents were able to file petitions and get the proposal put on this November’s ballot for public vote.

“Though a legal victory is being vigorously pursued, the ultimate resolution is not assured in time to affect what must be in place by June 1 to take effect July 1, 2013,” Dohoney explained. “Should a final legal victory be realized after July 1, the Administration would presume to move expeditiously to reverse some of the impacts of the cuts contained within the recommended budget.”

Cincinnati Mounted Patrol
Cincinnati’s mounted patrol would be cut entirely if City Council passes the recommended budget. Photograph by Randy Simes for UrbanCincy.

The end result of these cuts includes the elimination of 66 police officers, 71 fire fighters, 64 city employees, and the elimination of 60 vacant positions. The recommended budget will also eliminate funding for the following items:

  • Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance ($150,000)
  • Urban Agricultural Program ($65,000)
  • Heritage Events Subsidy – Opening Day Parade, St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Black Family Reunion, Juneteenth ($36,000)
  • Camp Washington, Fairview, Filson, Spring Grove Village, and Ziegler Pools ($167,650)
  • Bush Recreation Center in Walnut Hills ($127,710)
  • Energy Management Program ($100,010)
  • Mounted Patrol ($95,000)
  • Community Prosecution Program ($83,857)
  • Delinquent Accounts/Receivables Program ($75,460)
  • Claims Program ($55,680)
  • Tire Collection Program ($30,880)

In addition to the elimination of these programs, no funding is budgeted for either 2014 or 2015 as a result of limited General Fund resources.

Furloughs for City Management staff will also take place, and the City of Cincinnati would also use a larger amount of projected casino revenues to balance this budget, even though Dohoney has recommended against that in the past due to the unpredictability of these funds.

“While balancing a budget deficit with mostly cuts is not preferred, the timing of the new fiscal year coupled with the timing of the litigation over the parking deal makes it the only real option with a number this large,” Dohoney stated in a prepared release. “Our goal is going to be to recall staff as soon as possible and provide the best customer service we can deliver for the citizens in the meantime.”

A number of other measures are taken in the recommended budget to help close the budget gap, but the large amount of savings is realized through personnel layoffs. Dohoney has also recommended that the property tax millage increase from 5.7 mills to its maximum allowed 6.1 mills to raise an additional $1.3 million annually.

To help engage the public in this budget process, Cincinnati Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls (C) has scheduled three public hearings. The first will take place at the Duke Energy Convention Center on Thursday, May 16 at 6:30pm, the second will occur on Monday, May 20 at 6:30pm at the College Hill Recreation Center, and the final meeting will take place at the Madisonville Recreation Center on Wednesday, May 22 at 6:30pm.

“My priority for the FY 2014 city operating budget is to make sure that all Cincinnati’s neighborhoods are safe and that we continue to attack blight that breeds crime,” Qualls stated. “As chair of the Budget and Finance Committee I will work to further reduce the number of layoffs for police, fire and health department personnel, to ensure that we keep all our neighborhoods safe and clean.”

President Obama Shifts Attention Toward Economy, Cities in 2013 State of the Union Address

President Barack Obama (D) delivered the annual State of the Union address last evening. The hour-long speech covered a wide range of topics including gun control, military policy, immigration reform, voting rights, domestic economic programs, education reform, and energy policy.

One of the most-discussed topics of the evening was when the President announced his aspirations to see the national minimum wage raised to $9 an hour. The current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour results in an annual income of $14,500 – a number the President says keeps families with two minimum wage earners below the poverty line.

In 2006, Ohioans voted to raise the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.85 an hour, with an annual cost-of-living escalator.

“This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families,” President Obama stated. “It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets.”

Brent Spence Bridge Alternative 1

Brent Spence Bridge Alternative 2
The President called for a “Fix-It-First” program during his State of the Union address, but will it make a difference for Cincinnati’s Brent Spence Bridge Rehabilitation/Replacement project? Brent Spence Bridge replacement Alternative 1 (TOP) and Alternative 2 (BOTTOM) renderings provided.

Since the last time Congress voted to increase the federal minimum wage, which is effective for all states that have a minimum wage lower than the federal level, 19 different states have voted to raise their respective rates. The President’s $9 an hour proposal with an annual cost-of-living escalator would place it above every state in the union with the exception of Washington which pays its lowest earning workers $9.19 an hour.

In addition to raising the pay for the nation’s lowest earners, the President also pushed for new programs meant to spur job growth in a new economy. He called for the reform of high school education to more effectively train graduates to be able to fill high-tech jobs.

He also asked Congress to create a network of 15 manufacturing innovation hubs, modeled after the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) established in Youngstown, OH in August 2012. Those cities selected, the President says, would work to partner businesses with the Department of Defense and Energy.

The President stated that the goal is to transform “regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs” in an effort to jumpstart the next revolution in manufacturing.

The advanced manufacturing policy proposal is one that should certainly catch the attention of local policy leaders as they work to transform Cincinnati’s Mill Creek Valley into a productive economic engine for the 21st century, as laid out in the Growth & Opportunities Cincinnati Plan published in 2008.

Another point of emphasis during the President’s first State of the Union address of his second term revolved around repairing the nation’s existing built environment.

To that end, he discussed retrofitting buildings to become more energy efficient, and announced a goal to cut energy wasted by homes and businesses in half over the next 20 years. President Obama continued by calling for a program that would prioritize infrastructure spending on existing assets in need of repair, like Ohio and Kentucky’s combined 4,054 deficient bridges.

“I propose a ‘Fix-It-First’ program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs,” said President Obama. “And to make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden, I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children.”

Perhaps the biggest bi-partisan applause of the night went to the President’s condemnation of gun violence and call for action to prevent further atrocities like those at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and those that occur on the streets of America’s cities every day.

“Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight,” President Obama clarified. “But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.”