Cincinnati City Council Budget Keeps Police Spending Intact, Chisels Out $6.6 Million for Affordable Housing

After a number of contentious budget hearings that drew hundreds calling for defunding the police, Cincinnati City Council today passed a final version of the city's $1 billion spending package in the face of a $73 million deficit.

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click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati City Hall

Cincinnati City Council passed a final version of the city's $1 billion spending package — one that wrestled with a $73.6 million deficit caused by economic fallout from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

To bridge that gap, the budget includes a potential $25 million in borrowed funds, early retirement for some employees, elimination of some vacation positions and cuts to city departments. One area spared cuts, however, much to activists' chagrin: the Cincinnati Police Department.

Hundreds of people crammed into budget hearings at the Duke Energy Convention Center last week, most of them to push for defunding Cincinnati police — some to the tune of 50% or more. Those calls for reducing or eliminating the police department's budget come as the nation continues to wrestle with high-profile deaths of unarmed individuals at the hands of police, including an incident last month in which a man named George Floyd was killed after a Minneapolis Police Officer named Derek Chauvin held his knee on Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes.

A contentious hearing June 18 ended early and sparked a protest outside the convention center on Elm Street after Budget and Finance Chair David Mann attempted to cease that hearing because a large crowd shouted over a speaker advocating for full police funding.

Protesters showed up again at Wednesday's June 24 hearing, holding a cookout on the sidewalk outside City Hall as council mulled the budget and speaking during public comment.

"We are and have been calling for a decrease of funding for the police department and a reallocation of these funds to community services," speaker Grace Fulton said. "We will not stop. This is only the beginning."

Several protesters were escorted out of the meeting by police officers during the public hearing. City officials say they were not arrested, however.

CPD's $152.6 million share of city spending this year accounts for 36% of the city's $411.9 million operating budget. Police accountability activists point out that that amount dwarfs most programs' and departments' share of the budget. Human services spending, for example, accounts for less than 1.4% of the operating budget.

Most of that police spending is personnel, much of it dictated by a contract between the Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police and the city passed last year. That contract expires next year.

The FOP contract dictates the pay rates for officers, but does not stipulate the number of officers the city must hire and sets only a 30-day notice requirement for layoffs. It also does not require a specific number of overtime hours be funded for officers.

Council members, however, indicated they were not willing to make layoffs or reductions to the police department.

At the end of the day, council did roll roughly $1 million from the police budget into youth programs but otherwise left spending there untouched. That cut is approximately the increase in the police budget the city manager suggested over last fiscal year, much of it tied to cost of living increases stipulated in the city's contract with the police union.

The budget also boosts funding for police accountability organization the Citizen Complaint Authority to $900,000. That's an extra $150,000 from the city manager's budget and an additional $50,000 from moves by city council.

Also included in the budget: $10 million more for social services, affordable housing and other priorities from federal CARES Act funds.

That included ordinances that will contribute $2 million to minority businesses, including $500,000 for personal protective equipment for minority-owned businesses.

"These are businesses that are or could be in our communities," council member Greg Landsman says. "I think this is a very big deal."

Council carved out another $1 million to create a program that will dispatch social workers who deal with mental health and substance abuse issues on 911 calls.

In addition to that spending, a new initiative will put aside 25% of funds from the city's tax increment financing districts toward affordable housing. TIF districts funnel property tax receipts from property value increases in specific areas into dedicated funds to be spent in those areas only. This year, that would mean an extra $6.6 million for affordable housing, with more coming in every year.

"We need more affordable housing, and specifically we need it not just at the 80% of area median income but at 60% or below," council member P.G. Sittenfeld said. "By tethering affordable housing to development, we're going to be a lot closer to getting that ratio right than we have historically. It doesn't solve the totality of the challenge, but it does move us forward."

Seven members of council also voted to approve a $4.9 million budget that would restart the streetcar — a move that Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley promptly vetoed. Council can't override that veto until its next regularly scheduled meeting in August.

Council's plan is an increase on top of the $3 million for the streetcar the city manager proposed. That initial plan would have meant a so-called "zombie streetcar" — i.e. one that runs just enough to keep it operational but without passengers for the next fiscal year.

Council's plan instead would have the streetcar run at half capacity for the next two months and then at full capacity afterward, all while doing away with the streetcar's $1 fare.

The board of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority objected to the use of $1.5 million of the city's .3% earnings tax earmarked for transit to shore up the streetcar's operations, as have Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman and Cranley.

Metro will transition over to a county levy next year and the portion of the city's earnings tax that goes to buses will sunset. Meanwhile, Metro will receive $33 million in federal pandemic aid via the CARES Act to keep buses running.

"I'm honored to vote 'no' today," Smitherman said. "I'm honored to stand with those bus riders, not just in words."

Council member Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, however, disagreed.

"We have the money now," she said. "Spending $3 million to run an empty streetcar just seems horrible."

Ordinances council passed will also boost by $250,000 eviction prevention efforts, bringing funding for those efforts to $500,000 next year.

Council also asked the city to guarantee money it spends with human services agencies that provide violence prevention, job training, eviction aid and other help for low-income residents. Under the city manager's proposal, that spending would be funded by one-time federal pandemic aid money administered via the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's community development block grant program.

However, the city needs a waiver to spend the pandemic relief money in that manner — something that is not guaranteed. But an ordinance by council member Kearney compels the city to find the money even if HUD denies the city's waiver request.

Cincinnati's fiscal year starts July 1.


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