EDITORIAL: What Cranley’s Clever Budget Means for Urbanists

As has been widely reported thus far, the budget proposed by Mayor Cranley’s Administration is not as bad as many had expected it would be. That is, the administration’s proposal that is predicated on a massive reduction in required pension contributions is not that bad.

Should the proposed reduction to 14% in pension contributions not be accepted by a federal court, then all bets are off as to where this budget will actually go, since the vast majority of its balancing comes from that assumption. This is a major assumption, and one that will not be clarified until later this summer.

One of Cranley’s interesting moves relates to the Focus 52 program, established under Mayor Mallory’s Administration, that targeted funds for economic development projects throughout every city neighborhood. The fund relied, in part, on $3,000,000 in casino revenues to pay for its capital projects, which oddly enough were included in the Operating Budget in prior years.

The proposed budget shifts these Focus 52 projects from the Operating Budget to the Capital Budget, but the $3,000,000 in funding does not move along with them. As a result, the $3,000,000 is being used to help balance the Operating Budget, thus eliminating funding for all Focus 52 capital projects, or requiring cuts elsewhere in the Capital Budget to cover the costs.

The clever ledger shift allows Cranley to essentially eliminate the Focus 52 program without a special hearing process, and thus free up $3,000,000 annually for the Operating Budget that would have otherwise gone to support these neighborhood economic development projects.

City of Cincinnati Personnel Changes Since 2013

The City will have its first public hearings on the budget proposal starting tomorrow. For those of you who care about urbanism, UrbanCincy’s editorial team has gone through every page of Cranley’s budget proposal and identified the following major items of concern:

  1. Public Safety (police and fire) would consume 65.8% of the Operating Budget. While consuming two-thirds of the Operating Budget, only one-third of the City’s overall staffing would be made up of Public Safety personnel.
  2. Since the year 2000, Public Safety will have seen its personnel levels decrease by 4% (87 FTE), while all other departments will have collectively seen their personnel decrease by 17.7% (803 FTE).
  3. The City of Cincinnati would not repay $2,000,000 in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) dollars to Cincinnati Public Schools as previously agreed.
  4. The Cincinnati Area Geographic Information System (CAGIS), which is a shared technology and mapping service between the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, would see its funding reduced by $335,560, bringing its total funding down to $4,448,000.
  5. An additional $279,100 would be allocated to repair an estimated 8,000 potholes. This money would come at the expense of $154,100 in funding previously programmed for solar trash receptacles/compactors and $125,000 for a customs house at Lunken Airfield.
  6. Even though the Department of Planning & Buildings generates more in revenues than it has in expenses, and has won national accolades the last two years, it would see its Neighborhood Studies fund completed eliminated ($81,700).
  7. The Bicycle Transportation Program would be completely modified to only include funding and staff time for off-road trails, and eliminate all funding and staff resources for the development of any bike lanes, sharrows, bike racks or other on-street bike facilities.
  8. The Office of Environment & Sustainability would have $77,500 cut from its budget; while the Urban Forestry (street tree) Program would see its funding increase $46,650.
  9. A whopping 1,954 vehicles out of the City’s total 2,419 vehicles are out of life cycle because they have exceeded the established standards for maximum mileage, age or maintenance costs.
  10. The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority would continue to receive $700,000 for operations, but would receive no money for capital projects as had been anticipated following the cancellation of the Parking Modernization & Lease Agreement that would have otherwise provided the Port Authority with a funding stream for capital projects.

While this budget proposal may technically be “structurally balanced”, it does so by craftily moving budget items around from one ledger to the other, defunding programs that either generate or save money over the long-term, and overly relying on what could be considered this year’s one-time budget fix – a reduction to 14% pension contribution that would equate to $7,100,000 in savings annually.

The City should fulfill its payment obligations to Cincinnati Public Schools, fully fund all aspects of its revenue generating Department of Planning & Buildings, renew the Bicycle Transportation Program to its originally intended goals established through an extensive public engagement process, restore funding to CAGIS and the Office of Environment & Sustainability, return the funds programmed for solar trash receptacles/compactors, and shift the funding associated with Focus 52 capital projects to the Capital Budget along with the projects.

Outside of this budget process, the City should also move forward with a comprehensive effort to fix its outdated fleet of vehicles, provide a stable and substantial revenue stream for the Port Authority and balance its budget in a way that does not create a police state.

The clever maneuvers demonstrated in Cranley’s first budget proposal show ingenuity, but UrbanCincy would prefer seeing that ingenuity being used to solve the actual problems present instead of relying on financing tricks.

PHOTOS: The Rebirth and Hype of Medellín Does Not Disappoint

It is not hard to understand why Medellín is being considered by many to be Colombia’s gem city.

From the moment I moved to Colombia, everyone I met talked about Medellín with a gleam in their eye. I half-expected to be disappointed once I finally arrived because of all the hype. Once I did arrive in the city, however, disappointment was not the reaction.

Sitting in a valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides, Medellín is an impressively modern city in the midst of a country still modernizing. Endowed with beautiful weather, clean environment and efficient work culture, it is a powerful part of the Colombian economy. For a city that a mere 20 years ago was among the most dangerous in the world, the transformation is remarkable and attests to the will of the people of Medellín.

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Medellín’s transportation system consists of two grade-separated rail lines (elevated and ground-level), three metro cable lines, and two bus rapid transit lines. Maps of the metro system show a future extension of the smaller of the two rail lines.

While one of the metro cable lines is mostly for tourists, the other two have transformed commutes that used to take two hours through the winding streets of the city’s informal, working class neighborhoods into a short ride above the city that connects with the rail lines below. In addition to this, the city has a public bike share system.

While I was unable to see the extent to which the system was employed, the fact that they had it was very impressive. To go along with their bike share system, the city had a clear system of bike lanes on many of the streets. The city also has several grade-separated highways and large arterial roads, a problem in many Colombian cities.

In the first official episode of The UrbanCincy Podcast, we were joined by Natalia Gomez Rojas, a city planner from Bogotá, to discuss Colombia’s pursuit and implementation of bus rapid transit. The discussion also touched on a number of societal issues facing Colombia’s cities as they continue to develop and evolve in a post-drug cartel era. You can subscribe to The UrbanCincy Podcast on iTunes for free.

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.