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Short-sighted policy decisions ruling budget debate

Difficult budget decisions combined with an election year, make for a truly wonderful time to follow politics. That is if you enjoy constant bickering, grand standing and get nowhere fast style of government.

What is happening now in Cincinnati is not unusual. A projected budget deficit during an economic downturn has resulted in City leaders having to make very tough decisions about where to make cuts in order to balance the budget until revenues once again increase. What this has led to is a back-and-forth political mud slinging contest.

The City Manager laid out his plan to balance the budget and that included the unpopular decision to cut 138 members from the police department. Making political matters worse, the Fraternal Order of Police has refused to make any concessions in order to help preserve their own workforce, saying that the cuts need to come from other departments.

This is not new. The police and fire unions across this country are some of the strongest around and hold a hard position. They are fighting for their constituents which is reasonable, but it is up to the policy makers to hear their argument and make an informed decision based on more than just the hard stance of one or two city departments. Over the past several years other departments have been sustaining cuts, while the police force has actually grown.

Yesterday a group of four City Council members announced their plan to save all 138 police positions. Their solution: delay a $2.5 million payment to Cincinnati Public Schools that is due in October. This would save the jobs through the rest of 2009, but not help out the cause in 2010. So they go on to suggest cutting the Planning Department, Comprehensive Plan funding, and the Office of Environmental Quality (OEQ) to name a few.

What is interesting is that the Planning Department is already undersized for the a city as large as Cincinnati, the Comprehensive Plan money is coming from the Capital Budget and therefore can not be used for operational costs like police or fire, and the OEQ is basically a skeleton staff that was recently formed and has been bringing in money and making city services more efficient.

Data from Office of Environmental Quality

A recent report comparing recycling program costs for 2010 found that the proposed cuts to the enhanced recycling program would actually cost the City more money than it would save. The reason is that the current recycling contract costs the City $1,179,360 each year, while the enhanced program costs $980,519 each year, thus resulting in an additional $198,841 in costs for recycling while having a less effective program. The financials work out this way due to increased revenue and savings with the enhanced program. The current recycling contract recoups about 46% of its total contract cost through revenue and savings, while the enhanced program recoups around 77% of its total contract cost – offsetting the additional cost of the program and then some.

Data from the Office of Environmental Quality

At the same time the elimination of the Office of Environmental Quality would cost the City roughly $17 million in lost revenue. The OEQ had a budget (pdf) of just under $3 million in 2009, but saved the City $650,000 in energy services performance contracts and other energy management efforts. Furthermore, the OEQ brought in $19,319,500 in grant money that would more than likely be lost as a result of cutting the department.

The numbers speak for themselves, but nobody seems to be discussing them. A reasonable debate about these tough budget decisions should be had, but said debate should be done on facts and available resources instead of political will and lobbying power.

Do we know if these 138 positions in the CPD are needed? Do we know the optimum level for a police force in order to reach the desired safety levels in our community? Maybe we need more, maybe less, or maybe everything is at an appropriate level right now. All I can say for sure is that I do not know, and I would love to see an audit that would investigate just how much we should be allocating to public safety each year to reach desired results before we keep pouring more and more limited resources into a single department at the expense of the rest.

Please contact City leaders and let them know how you feel on this issue. You can find all of the necessary contact information and additional action items HERE.

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News

Riddle me this…

Someone correct me if I am wrong here, but in general, conservatives want smaller government and less spending, right? So why do they tend to live in sprawl areas?

When they are first built, new suburbs cost the taxpayer money to generate the infrastructure to live there (spending), and in many places, especially here in the Cincinnati region, each new suburb has its own local government, police, fire, etc. (more people on the bureaucratic government’s payroll).

Conservatives: why not practice what you preach by living in areas that do not necessitate wasteful spending and bloated government? Discuss.

Photo Courtesy of USDA-NRCS

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News Politics

UPDATE: White House meeting on the state of urban America

As was posted earlier today, President Obama addressed a meeting at the White House today that discussed the problems and opportunities of urban America. There has been a good amount of press coverage on the national scene, but unfortunately our local newspaper came up short. The Enquirer did, however dedicate staff time to developing a Harry Potter quiz for readers to take. I wish I were kidding…

See here for a comment from the White House, including some of the President’s remarks.

Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

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News

White House Office of Urban Affairs holds conference today

According to this article in the Washington Post, the White House is hosting a day long conference today about the future of American urban policy. Heads of relevant departments and agencies will attend, and the President is expected to give remarks as well.

In February, President Obama created the Office of Urban Affairs (OUA), and selected Adolfo Carrión Jr. (bio) to direct it. According to this article, the Director intends to “bring agencies together to change urban growth patterns and foster opportunity, reduce sprawl, and jump-start the economy.”

Adolfo Carrión Jr. – photo from Ezra Klein

The executive order that established the OUA states that the Office will “take a coordinated and comprehensive approach to developing and implementing an effective strategy concerning urban America”

The event today will serve as a semi-official start to the OUA, and will be the basis for a several-month long tour of urban America. Officials will visit cities across the nation in an effort to better understand the needs of our metropolitan areas.

OUA’s mission does not come without some opposition. Some worry that reexamining our current public policy creates a dangerous precedent of federal meddling in local affairs. Director Carrión seems to think just the opposite will occur. From yesterday’s Washington Post:

“For too long government has operated from the top down,” said Carrión. “We’ve always heard why does the national government send down these unfunded mandates, under funded mandates, mandates that are not necessarily universally applicable. The bottom-up approach speaks to the need for this to be flexible.”

Although no official site yet exists for the OUA, the articles, executive order, and this page on the White House website seems to indicate that the office wants to work with local municipalities to help provide the support they need to carry out what works best for them. In general, it appears that the President’s agenda will focus on bolstering the strength of cities as economic, social and cultural incubators, while also working to promote sensible growth and regional efficiency.

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News

Our Poor American Suburbs

The other day I was reading metropolitan policy briefings on the Brookings Institution site (It’s OK, you can say it: “Wow, David. You are a huge nerd.”) when I stumbled on this dinner party fun fact: more Americans who live below the poverty line live in suburbs than in cities.

Fascinating, right? Here’s the troubling part. The article goes on to say:

“America can’t ensure its leading place in the global economy unless we grapple with the problems and opportunities of our suburbs. Nonprofits, long focused on inner cities, need to reach out to poor families and immigrants in the suburbs. The federal government should support the production and preservation of affordable housing there.” (my emphasis added)

I respect the research the Brookings Institution conducts more than almost any other source out there, but they are dead wrong on this one.

Our public policy from approximately the end of WWII through now-ish encouraged suburban development. To say that it was the will of the people that drove suburbanization is to ignore how large of a role our public policies played in encouraging that notion.

Federally subsidized home loans allowed young families to live the “American Dream” (whatever that means…look for a post on that very topic sometime down the road). We the taxpayers funded the infrastructure that made living in the suburbs possible – the roads and highways, schools and sewers, water lines, power lines, garbage collection, police and fire protection, new parks, city halls, local government employees…all these things cost money.

‘Suburbia’ by David Shankbone

When people spread out over a large area, the cost to implement and sustain all new versions of these tax-backed services skyrockets. Furthermore, in many cases they become redundant. As has been said somewhere else, it costs the same to plow a street whether 10 people live on it or 100 people do. The only difference is the number of people paying into the system that pays for the maintenance of that road – the more people paying in, the less expensive per tax-payer. Multiply that same scenario out for everything else our taxes pay for, and well, you can see how expensive sprawl can be.

Nevertheless, for the past 60 years or so, our public policy has made it easy to move out of the scary, dangerous city into the prosperous, safe, “good life” in the suburbs because we the taxpayer have funded the infrastructure necessary to do so.

I agree with the Brookings writers’ assertion that the social services to support those who have fallen on desperate times ought to be available in the suburbs, but it’s a mentality that’s like treating a gunshot wound with a Hello Kitty Band-Aid – it might make you feel better momentarily, but you’re probably still gonna die.

Brookings’ solution to six decades of bad public policy that incentivizes living in an inefficient and unsustainable way is to … um … bolster the public policy that incentivizes living in an inefficient and unsustainable way. Throwing money and social services at this problem will help those who need it temporarily, but, we need to look at how our policies encourage and discourage where people live.

Instead of incentivizing sprawl, our local, state, and federal governments need to incentivize filling in the existing beautiful housing stock we have here already. We need to find ways to incentivize healthy density and strong neighborhoods with a local focus. When we do, the development that occurs as a result will grow the tax base. The new-found efficiencies will allow us to provide the same or better services, but with less money. Doing more with less – that’s what will reverse our economic downturn.

So how do we do incentivize density? Tax incentives to those who revamp existing housing within a particular radius of downtown, maybe? A reexamination of our existing federal subsidies for first-time home buyers? Build the Cincinnati Streetcar? Reexamining zoning laws to allow or encourage higher density mixed-use buildings in areas? I’m all ears.