Isn't it bliss?
Don't you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can't move.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.
— from the play A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim (1973)
If ever there was the perfect example proving Cincinnati's system of government is broken and needs changes, the past two weeks have been it.
By the time this column is published, City Council likely will have passed a budget for the 2011-12 period after much hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing. Members are scheduled to approve some sort of spending plan late during the day in which I'm writing this, Dec. 21.
Of course, as of mid-day, residents still have no idea which city services will be reduced or eliminated, what new fees will be added or how many municipal workers will be laid off. All of which is pretty much par for the course for late December in Cincinnati.
Council is doing all the last-minute rushing in order to avoid a $58 million deficit. Although the shortfall's amount has fluctuated slightly due to changing revenues, our elected officials have known since early this year — and with more clarity since this summer — that major budget cuts would be needed. After all, city officials already had to scramble last spring to find some cuts to avoid a $51 million deficit this year. At the time, City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. told the group to expect a comparable shortfall for the 2011-12 period.
Just weeks later, the amount had risen to $62 million. Dohoney this fall proposed laying off 390 full- and part-time employees including 144 firefighters and 131 police officers. In the past few days, the deficit has fallen to $58 million and Dohoney revised his figures to 370 layoffs including 105 firefighters and 109 cops.
The advance notice meant council members had months to prepare and research ideas for cuts, perhaps negotiating some sort of compromise. Instead, they played a game of chicken with the city's finances, waiting to see who would pull the trigger first.
Mayor Mark Mallory even had difficulty getting any council member to accept the chairmanship of the finance committee after Laketa Cole resigned in June, because everyone knew about the mess that would be inherited.
Among the proposals Dohoney suggested for consideration last spring were ending the city's property tax rollback and charging the maximum 6.1 mills, which would generate an extra $8.9 million; increasing the admissions tax for concerts and sports events from 3 percent to 8 percent, which would generate $6 million; and increasing the city's earnings tax on workers from 2.1 percent to 2.5 percent, which would generate about $45 million. The latter action would require a change in the city's charter, which must go before voters for approval.
Council, however, didn't have the political stomach to do any of those things.
The bleak financial situation is mostly attributable to a drop in tax revenues due to the Great Recession but is compounded by the fact that City Council used various “one-time fixes” in recent years to paper over deficits instead of making structural changes in a gradual manner. As a result, the situation has snowballed and caused the largest deficit in Cincinnati's history.
It should be noted that the chair of City Council's finance committee during this period included John Cranley (2001-09), Cole (2009 through June 2010) and Roxanne Qualls, from summer until now. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it's not Republicans primarily to blame for City Hall's financial mess, it's local Democrats unwilling to buck special interest groups.
In a blatant attempt to do an end-run around the mayor, four council members met with The Enquirer's editorial board Dec. 15 to unveil a budget-cutting plan that includes contracting out the patrol services of the city's Police Department to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. Although the council faction hadn't discussed the concept previously with Mallory or Dohoney, it vetted Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. about the idea.
Mallory and Dohoney only received letters from Leis about the concept about the same time the council faction was pitching the idea to The Enquirer. Is that any way to run a government?
Of course, Leis was all too willing to take the city's money and gain more territory. “I am thoroughly convinced that a single agency providing law enforcement service to both the city and county would significantly improve the quality of service at a greatly reduced overall cost,” Leis wrote.
When pressed for details, Leis responded about a week later, stating he could hire the patrol bureau's 790 employees for $75 million, or $10 million less than what the city currently pays. (For those keeping track, that still leaves a $48 million shortfall to fill.)
Mallory opposed the change, calling it “a brazen and shameless attempt at union-busting.” That means at least six council votes would be needed to override a mayoral veto, which is improbable, nevermind the expected lawsuit from the police union for breaking its contract.
Still, the council faction — Qualls, Jeff Berding, Chris Bortz and Wendell Young — continue to pursue it as a viable option, burying their heads in the sand to the harsh realities.
The secretive council cabal probably violated the city's charter by making the overture to Leis. Under charter changes made in 1999 that took effect in 2001, the mayor is the city's official representative in deal-making with other jurisdictions. The document reads: “The mayor shall be recognized as the official head and representative of the city for all purposes, except as provided otherwise in this charter.”
It's worth noting the one council member who dared raise staffing and deployment issues involving the Police and Fire departments ahead of time, Greg Harris, was defeated in the 2009 elections after being targeted by the unions. Harris' position showed political courage and leadership, and his stance might have prevailed if his cowardly colleagues had stood in unison back then.
Also, the four-member council faction played fast and loose with Ohio's open meetings laws. That's because it was just one person short of constituting a majority, which would've required advance public notice of its session with The Enquirer's editors.
Surely Mallory and Dohoney should've been notified. But that's typical of the reindeer games played by council, and the mayor is poor ol' Rudolph.
Whatever budget emerges, it's clear that a better process is needed. But a better process won't organically be created because Cincinnati's strange form of government doesn't hold any elected official accountable, and too easily allows them to pass the buck.
The entire City Council is elected at-large, with the top nine vote-getters picked citywide winning the seats. No individual council member can be singled out for incompetence or stupidity in that type of race, meaning incumbents have an advantage no matter how inept they are.
Meanwhile, although Cincinnati has directly elected its mayor since 2001, that person doesn't hold executive-style authority over the city's operations like mayors do in most cities like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Rather, most of the work is done by a city manager appointed by council.
This has created a bizarre, hybrid system that doesn't yield good results.
No disrespect is meant to the affluent do-gooders who comprise the Charter Committee, the city's de facto third political party, but it's way past time to ignore that group's pleas and abolish the city manager's position once and for all. It's outlived its usefulness by at least two decades.
Further, a smaller City Council — with some members elected at-large, and others by district — would increase accountability and force council members to play more nicely with one another.
Amid all the budget bickering, Bortz has pledged to introduce a charter amendment next year that would reduce council to seven members and make them unpaid positions. The first part is a good idea, but the latter is short-sighted: If that happens, only attorneys, trust-fund babies and employees of large corporations will run for council. Let's reduce council salaries, but not get rid of them.
Also, let's give true power to the mayor and hold that person responsible for getting good results. We've seen the current form of government fail us time and again. It's time to get serious about making changes.
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