Cincinnati’s 2019 Budget: Money for Health Gap, 911 Center and Police OT, and Lots of Fee Increases
By Sharon Collidge
June 27, 2019
Cincinnati City Council eked out the 2019 budget Wednesday, wrestling a $32 million deficit to the ground with roughly $10 million in cuts and a series of tax and fee increases.
There was a mayoral veto stamp that council overrode, testy exchanges about poverty and – no surprise – a disagreement over the streetcar budget.
But ultimately, council unanimously approved a $407 million operating budget that adds sanitation workers, litter patrols and 911 employees, in an effort to fix the troubled center in the wake of 16-year-old Kyle Plush’s death after he became trapped in his van.
And it approved an $85 million capital budget that, among other things, funds two new projects: the rehabilitation of the empty Masonic Lodge in East Price Hill into an event center and improvements to the Pleasant Ridge business district.
Overall, the spending was a bit more than proposed by the city administration and mayor, with the extra money coming from cutting vacant positions and anticipating there will be money left over from this year’s budget.
Contentious and last-minute issues:
Giving $550,000 to the Center for Closing the Health Gap: Mayor John Cranley opposed it because of a review that found lax oversight for the group. He vetoed that item, but six members of council overrode him. Cranley suggested the money would be better spent by the city’s Health Department.
Cuts to police overtime and delayed hiring of officers: On Monday, council’s Budget and Finance Committee took $200,000 from the city’s $7.2 million pot of money for police overtime and delayed a 45-member police recruit class by three months. Chief Eliot Isaac implored council not to do either. In the end, council restored the overtime, but kept in place the delay. The sworn complement of officers is down 30 members right now and a rash of retirements are ahead later this year. “I’ve been watching City Hall politics for a long time, since 2001,” Cranley said. “And I believe this is the first time ever that City Council has proactively cut funding to crime-fighting initiatives beyond what the police department was willing to suggest. This is an extraordinary change in values that I think is bad for public safety.”
All those fees and taxes: Council raised the commercial hauling tax; increased building and permit fees; raised stormwater rates; upped the cost of parking at meters; added a billboard tax; and agreed to ask voters to increase the admissions tax in November. Council Republicans Amy Murray and Jeff Pastor and independent Christopher Smitherman voted against the admissions tax, the hauling tax, the billboard tax, meter changes, and developer fees. Pastor and Murray also voted against raising the stormwater fee and upping the building fees. On the billboard tax, three members of the Norton family, which owns Norton Advertising, complained during comment that the tax is illegal because sign companies already pay permit fees; it essentially applies to only two companies; and it was slipped through committee with no time for them to respond. Cranley expressed concern billboard owners might sue, putting the $700,000 the tax is projected to raise in jeopardy.
Booting the cars of ticket scofflaws: Acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney proposed increasing revenue by $2.9 million via changes to the parking system, including adding parking meters, raising the cost of some parking meters, extending the time some parking meters run and booting the cars of people with three or more parking tickets. Council balked at the final item, calling it predatory. That meant the $400,000 it was slated to bring in came from elsewhere.
Streetcar budget: The streetcar budget came in at $4.4 million, roughly the same as last year. But Cranley, who has never supported the project, warned revenue is not covering costs and next year there’s a risk that the city will have to dip into operating money. Councilman Greg Landsman, whose council committee oversees the project, touted a recent series of changes he believes will improve service, including hiring a streetcar director at a salary of $150,000. Other cuts in the streetcar budget, including how much money SORTA gets, will cover that cost.
The budget was worked out during a six-hour meeting Monday and three meetings over seven hours Wednesday. It brought occasional drama via Cranley’s wielding of the veto stamp and testy exchanges between some council members.
Pastor missed several early votes and then gave an impassioned speech about why taxes hurt the poor, prompting Councilman Tamaya Dennard to tell him not to lecture her – or speak on behalf of all poor people.
Councilman Chris Seelbach challenged Murray’s and Pastor’s votes against taxes, asking both directly why they didn’t come up with alternative cuts if they were against the increases. Neither answered.
The new budget takes effect Sunday. Council breaks for most of July and August, with just three days of meetings at the beginning of August.