Bad Budget Ideas Confound Public Discourse

In the past few weeks, Cincinnati’s political scene has been engulfed by debate over the budget, often prompting testy exchanges between city officials.

In the past few weeks, Cincinnati’s political scene has been engulfed by debate over the budget, often prompting testy exchanges between city officials. But if the exercise has proven anything, it’s that the city administration is so far the only one with anything close to a workable plan to balance the city’s $35 million deficit.

With the rejection of the city’s plan to lease its parking assets to the Port Authority, Cincinnati is now unable to use parking funds to help balance the budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins in July. Since the city seemingly refuses any tax hikes, the administration has been left with one option: budget cuts. To carry out those cuts, the city says it will have to lay off 344 employees, including 189 cops and 80 firefighters.

Fear of cuts has led the administration’s critics to suggest their own ideas. But out of all the proposals, only about $10 million in casino revenue has been agreed upon as workable — and $4 million of that revenue is already dedicated to the Focus 52 program.

It’s good that public officials, aspiring and otherwise, have kept the city government in check with a plethora of ideas, but the prolonged debate has proven an unfortunate reality: If there were truly easy budget options, the city administration would have tried them in the first place. As Mayor Mark Mallory said in an April 4 City Council meeting, “I don’t think anyone in the administration wants to see their colleagues laid off.”

By going on and on with their disproven ideas, politicians are not just ignoring reality and their own hypocrisies; they also complicate public discourse in a way that misleads the public into thinking there truly are easy options.

With what is now his third budget plan, Democratic mayoral candidate John Cranley exemplifies what happens when political candidates release faulty budget plans. Before his current proposal, Cranley estimated casino revenue would come in at $21 million for the year, relying on outdated numbers from Horseshoe Casino General Manager Kevin Kline. After those numbers were disproven by the city, Cranley revised his estimate to $12 million in his latest proposal.

Cranley has also criticized the city’s parking plan for failing to structurally balance the budget. But Lea Eriksen, the city’s budget director, says the city has been running structurally imbalanced budgets since 2001, and Cranley was in office between 2000 and 2009 and chaired the budget committee for eight of those years.

Meanwhile, Councilman Charlie Winburn, the lone Republican on City Council, has repeatedly touted his own “Plan C.” Winburn says his plan would balance the budget with salary cuts instead of layoffs, even though city officials have repeatedly told him extensive salary cuts are unrealistic because they would require intensive negotiations with unions, which represent 90 percent of city employees.

Winburn’s legitimacy relies on some forgetfulness from voters. In November, he was one of the deciding votes for giving City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. a raise and bonus totaling $58,000.

Councilman Chris Seelbach put forward the most sensible alternative by admitting the city will have to make layoffs somewhere. His plan relies on casino revenue, $5 million in cuts based on the city’s priority-driven budgeting process and two ballot initiatives. 

The administration says casino revenue could be used, but the other ideas in Seelbach’s Plan S have problems. While the city could balance future budgets with ballot initiatives, the November votes would come too late for the fiscal year 2014 budget. Previously, Seelbach suggested passing a temporary stub budget to hold over the city until a vote, but Eriksen says stub budgets can only last three months and they’re typically used to gauge quarterly tax revenues, not hold off on truly balancing a budget.

The city administration says it’s already using the priority-driven budgeting process, which ranks the city’s programs based on surveys and meetings with Cincinnatians. In fact, that’s why the city is pursuing some cuts to police and fire departments. The mounted patrol unit in particular was one low-ranked program the city administration asked City Council to cut last year, but Seelbach’s lobbying efforts got the program restored.

To make matters worse, the city administration recently clarified Cincinnati is dealing with a $35 million deficit — much more than the previously estimated $26 million deficit the parking plan would have closed. Cranley has since reworked his budget plan to make the numbers match, but the council members are still behind.

Still, the consistent rejection should humble candidates before they try to criticize the city administration as disingenuous. What’s disingenuous is touting numbers that don’t work.

CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: [email protected] or @germanrlopez

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