Here are some important numbers that everyone who lives or works in Cincinnati should remember: 69, 84 and five.
The first number, 69, represents 69 percent. That’s how much of the city’s General Fund budget is allocated to the Police and Fire departments. A mere 31 percent — less than one-third of the total — is allocated for non-public safety purposes.
The second number, 84, represents 84 percent. That’s how much of the city’s General Fund budget goes toward personnel costs, mostly paying for salaries and insurance. A mere 16 percent — less than one-fifth of the total — pays for non-personnel costs.
The last number, five, represents the five Republicans who currently constitute a majority on the nine-member Cincinnati City Council.
(You read that correctly; although Councilman Chris Bortz is endorsed by the Charter Committee, it’s not a recognized political party under state law and Bortz is a registered Republican who has voted regularly in GOP primaries over the years. In reality, Charter’s purpose in recent decades is a puzzle. Its endorsed candidates share little in the way of political philosophy, and its primary purpose seems to be to provide political cover for Republicans to get elected in a predominantly Democratic city.)
For people unfamiliar with the city of Cincinnati’s budget, the General Fund budget is the portion that goes toward the day-to-day operating expenses of local government that isn’t restricted for specified purposes.
In other words, it’s the portion where City Council has the most discretion on cutting spending or making other changes like shifting money from one department to another.
When combined, the General Fund budget and the Restricted Funds budget are known collectively as the Operating Budget. Separately, there’s also the Capital Budget.
That’s money that legally can only be spent on fixed assets that last for five years or longer. It’s commonly referred to as the “bricks and mortar budget” because it pays for items like buildings, streets and equipment.
So, when politicians, pundits and others discuss Cincinnati’s budget problems, it’s the General Fund that they’re really talking about most of the time. (Some shady characters like to intentionally confuse the issue, though, like police union leaders and some council members who imply that Capital Budget money can be used for daily operating expenses.
Although the numbers fluctuate slightly from month to month, it’s currently estimated there will be a $33 million deficit next year in the Operating Budget. City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. has proposed some possible options to avoid the deficit including ending the city’s property tax rollback, imposing a trash collection fee and possibly laying off some municipal workers including police and firefighters.
So far, council members — in differing majorities — have rejected them all.
In fact, the deficit for 2012 initially was estimated at $25 million. But the June 13 action of City Council’s conservative majority to keep the tax rate steady actually added $8 million to the shortfall. That’s because keeping the same tax rate will generate less money next year due to declining home values caused by the recession and real estate bubble. The decision reversed a decade of council policy, which was to keep the rate at whatever amount resulted in $28.9 million in revenue.
Here’s the rub: Even if council had raised the tax rate slightly to generate the maximum amount of revenue allowed under the city’s charter, the owner of a $100,000 home only would’ve paid $46 more each year, on top of the roughly $300 paid now.
That increase would’ve amounted to an extra $3.83 per month, a small price to pay to maintain city services like health clinics or keep swimming pools open.
But those who benefit the most from lowering property taxes are people who own high-priced homes or large commercial properties, (i.e., the rich and powerful, who also tend to contribute to council campaigns). Cuts will have to be found elsewhere to pay for their tax break.
And yes, boys and girls, there are council elections this fall.
Those who reduced the tax rate were Bortz, Leslie Ghiz, Wayne Lippert, Amy Murray and Charlie Winburn. Cut this paragraph out and take it with you to the polls in November, either to remind you who not to vote for if you disagree with the policy, or to support them if you do.
This is the same council faction, by the way, that refuses to consider any cuts to the Police and Fire departments — which account for 69 percent of the General Fund budget.
During the past decade, the Police and Fire budgets have increased by about 35 percent; other departmental budgets throughout City Hall have decreased by 28 percent.
Part of the increase occurred when City Council decided in late 2001 to hire 115 additional police officers to improve Cincinnati’s image as a safe city following that spring’s riots — even though the police chief testified that he hadn’t requested them and didn’t think they were needed.
In recent years, city officials have canceled police recruit classes to absorb the ‘01 increase. But the police staffing currently is at 1,365 people, a net increase of one person compared to 2000 levels. During the same period, the Fire Department has added 13 people to the ranks — even as the rest of City Hall has made cuts.
“There is room outside police and fire to balance the budget,” Lippert said in a June 21 Enquirer article. “We just have to have the courage to do it.”
Of course, Lippert and his faction haven’t specified where those cuts should be made. And making the poor and disenfranchised bear the brunt of cuts is a curious definition for courage.
The budget dilemma is nothing new: Cincinnati faced a $54.7 million deficit heading into this year due mostly to declining tax revenues and inflation. After much dickering and public posturing, council agreed in January to use $27 million in one-time sources of cash to patch over the immediate problem, while also approving studies into changes that might yield the rest of the savings and hoping tax collections would rebound.
Now, seven months later, the problem isn’t as bad as last winter’s, but it still exists.
City Council, though, doesn’t appear too worried. Instead of meeting weekly, it has begun its traditional two-month summer recess. Council will take July and August off, except for a single meeting next month to consider any pressing business.
What that really means is council incumbents will be busy holding fund-raisers and stumping for cash. And if they hold true to form, they will either cancel or delay their first regular meeting in September, so they can march in the Harvest Home Parade.
These are the same politicians that taxpayers pay more than $60,000 to each year to make important decisions on our behalf.
Some council members say the long vacation doesn’t matter because the group’s makeup could change after the November elections, making any budget deal moot. Baloney. Better to draft a budget compromise now and tweak minor details when new members are elected, rather than try to rush through a spending plan from scratch in a six-week period before the holidays.
It’s time to forego your summer trips, council members, and hammer out a compromise. Get busy.
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