Usually, the sweltering summer months are when battles over the City of Cincinnati’s budget come to a head. But the wrangling will continue a little longer into October after Mayor John Cranley today vetoed an ordinance approved by five members of Cincinnati City Council closing out some big budgetary loose ends.
Cranley vetoed a $5.3 million spending plan supported by Democrats Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young, as well as Republican Jeff Pastor. Now that group will have to find a sixth vote to override Cranley’s veto — or decide to support stand-alone measures for some politically-sensitive items Cranley doesn’t oppose.
The omnibus spending ordinance comes after courts struck down a controversial billboard tax that would have raised about $700,000 a year to pay for many of the measures. The closeout includes $700,000 for the Center for Closing the Health Gap — up from an earlier $550,000 that council and Cranley tangled over — plus money for startup incubators Cincy Tech, Cintrifuse and the Hillman Accelerator. Council would pay for the added expenditures with leftover money from last year’s budget plus some proceeds from the sale of property occupied by downtown’s Whex Garage.
Cranley’s veto blocks that funding, calling the omnibus ordinance “incredibly reckless” and a “raid” on the city’s reserve funds. Cranley says that, faced with a loss of revenue from the blocked billboard tax, council should cut spending by $700,000 — not add more.
The spending council approved does mean slightly less money percentage-wise put into the reserves than past years. But Sittenfeld pushed back on the idea that council was “raiding” the fund, pointing out that almost $2 million will go into the fund under the omnibus budget.
“In what universe is adding nearly $2 million to our reserves, which is exactly what's happening, ‘raiding the reserves?’ ” Sittenfeld said. “I'm sorry, but two plus two still equals four, no matter the spin.”
Underlying the battle over the budget closeout is a familiar fight: money for the Health Gap, a controversial nonprofit the mayor once supported.
Closing the Health Gap’s funding increased greatly under Cranley’s tenure, going from a $200,000 allocation the year before he took office to $1 million a year from the city at its peak.
Cranley even filmed an ad in 2014 touting the Health Gap’s work — one that the organization is now sharing again on its social media accounts to push back against the mayor’s attempts to cut its funding.
“The Center for Closing the Health Gap is working hard to improve the well-being of our entire community,” Cranley says in that ad, encouraging viewers to volunteer and donate as scenes of workers at Health Gap events flash across the screen. “From health screenings to healthy eating programs, the Health Gap is making a difference.”
But the group’s funding has narrowed in recent years’ budgets, coinciding with controversy around its spending practices — and a major falling out between Cranley and the group’s leader.
Former Democratic Cincinnati Mayor Dwight Tillery, who runs the Health Gap, was once a close ally of Cranley’s, but the relationship between the two chilled over the city's hire to lead the Cincinnati Health Department. In 2016, Tillery supported Cranley’s mayoral opponent, Yvette Simpson, over his former ally.
Meanwhile, media scrutiny into the Health Gap questioned some of the organization’s spending and programs, finding that some corner stores participating in a fresh-fruit initiative were either closed or didn't have the produce and that both the city and the Health Gap did not adequately keep track of all spending happening there.
Cranley cited some of those issues during a news conference around his veto, including expenditures the Health Gap made to support the Black Agenda, a political organizing group led by Tillery that says it works to advocate for the interests of black residents. The Health Gap invoiced $3,650 to the city for work related to Black Agenda events and the organization’s website. It later returned that money to the city.
According to Cranley, that is tantamount to the Health Gap using tax dollars to campaign for political candidates, including council members who support the group.
“Russia and China operate that way, where tax dollars go to back to the Communist Party,” Cranley said. “That’s the very thing we try to avoid.”
Supporters of the Health Gap, including council members who voted for the budget closeout, say the group does vital work supporting positive health outcomes for Cincinnati's minority residents. Tillery has said that a city audit into the group actually shows the Health Gap isn’t guilty of the charges leveled against it. Cranley read for that audit today during his veto news event, saying the audit and news reports found "shortcomings" in the Health Gap's performance.
Cranley says the Cincinnati Health Department provides many of the same services, and that he would like to see funding for the Health Gap go through the same competitive, United Way-led process many other nonprofit, human services-related organizations go through to get city money. The Health Gap received money outside of that process throughout Cranley’s first term in office.
But the debate isn’t about the Health Gap alone.
Also tied up in the omnibus ordinance are politically touchy subjects that both the mayor and council members likely would not like to be seen opposing: Funding for a Cincinnati Police Department recruit class in January that Chief Eliot Isaac recently argued is needed to replace retiring officers and an expansion of the city’s ShotSpotter technology into Price Hill. The ordinance includes money to address evictions in Cincinnati and other initiatives as well.
The funding for public safety initiatives could be passed in stand-alone ordinances introduced by Cranley and Councilman David Mann. Opponents say this move gives Cranley something approaching a line-item veto on the budget. Cranley, however, casts the issue as one of legislative transparency, saying that council Democrats are rolling unpopular and unnecessary spending on the Center for Closing the Health Gap in with spending that is harder to vote against.
Already, both sides have used the funding as a political lever.
“I think citizens are rightly very concerned about vetoing an ordinance that funds cops and expands ShotSpotter, supports our homeless, provides eviction protection, spurs job creation, AND increases our reserves,” Sittenfeld tweeted after Cranley’s veto. “People want governing, not grudges.”
Cranley, meanwhile, says he thinks council will opt for the stand-alone packages.
"Every council member says they want to have the police recruit class start in January," he said. "We have the standalone legislation to do that."