Council Overrides Mayoral Vetoes on Liberty Street, Budget Closeout

A deal between Republican Councilman Jeff Pastor and Democrat Chris Seelbach gave council a veto-proof majority to advance funding for the Center for Closing the Health Gap, startup boosters, eviction prevention efforts and the narrowing of Liberty Stree

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

After some bipartisan deal-making over the past few days, a supermajority of Cincinnati City Council today overrode two vetoes issued by Mayor John Cranley.

The deals involved Republican Councilman Jeff Pastor and Democrat Councilman Chris Seelbach effectively agreeing to vote on legislation each had voted against at last week’s council meeting. At that meeting, Pastor declined to vote for an ordinance that will fund narrowing Liberty Street from seven to five lanes, including a potential water main relocation costing nearly $1 million. Seelbach had held out on voting for a $5 million budget closeout ordinance funding a number of initiatives because he didn’t have the needed sixth vote to veto-proof the Liberty Street ordinance.

Cranley last week vetoed both, calling them “reckless” spending and accusing council of raiding the city’s reserve fund. But after some slight funding reductions to both ordinances, Pastor agreed to vote for Seelbach’s ordinance, and Seelbach signed on to the budget closeout, providing enough votes to override the mayoral vetoes on both.

Objection to the spending packages was also bi-partisan: Republican Amy Murray and Democrat David Mann voted against both. Independent Councilman Christopher Smitherman was excused from today’s session.

Pastor argued that his support for the deal was driven by fiscal concerns. He pointed out that negotiations had trimmed about $400,000 from spending in both ordinances, that neither would raise taxes, and that council would put more money into the city’s reserves under the deal. The prior ordinances, funded by surpluses from last year’s budget and the sale of city-owned land under downtown’s Whex garage, contributed about 10.3 percent to the city’s reserve accounts — less than the 10.8 percent requested by the city manager and well below the city’s eventual goal of a 16 percent contribution. The new deals contribute a little more than 10.6 percent.

“This is a great day for African-American Republicans,” Pastor said, calling the ordinances “fiscally conservative.”

“I’m getting 90 percent of what I want. Orphans and homeless students are going to be taken care of."

There were plenty of politics at play in the drama around the spending provisions — most prominently, the fact that the budget closeout included $700,000 for the Center for Closing the Health Gap, a nonprofit run by former Mayor Dwight Tillery, once a Cranley ally.

Cranley oversaw big increases in funding for the Health Gap during his first term. The organization received $1 milllion from the city in the 2016 budget, up from just $200,000 the year Cranley took office. But a fallout between Cranley and Tillery over a Health Department hire and Tillery’s support for Cranley’s opponent in the 2017 mayoral election, plus media investigations that raised questions about the nonprofit’s spending, made the Health Gap a target for funding reductions the past two years.

The Center has received funding independent of the city’s United Way-administered funding process for social service agencies. Cranley has argued that the Center should go through the same process that other nonprofits apply to for city funding. Supporters of the Health Gap piled into council chambers today, as they have done during past fights over funding for the organization focused on health outcomes for black Cincinnatians. At least a dozen spoke in support of the organization.

"As a black male, 68 years of age, I've benefited very much from their services," Robert Humphries said, specifically mentioning efforts that engage black men about health issues and the organization's yearly health expo. "I ask you not to take those services away."

In addition to the Health Gap, the budget ordinance provides $125,000 in funding to an eviction prevention program, homelessness prevention efforts, startup incubators and an earlier police recruit class, as well as installation of ShotSpotter technology by Cincinnati Police in Price Hill.

There were also tangles around the Liberty Street ordinance. Cranley pointed out that the legislation only stipulates funding for the project, does not nail down the design and includes provisions for more input. Cranley has backed a less-extensive version of the safety measures that include curb bump-outs at high-traffic intersections along Liberty Street, preserving 85 parking spots.

"I'm glad to see we'll get another bite at the apple" for the design, Cranley commented.

Seelbach responded by saying that the deal meant to fund a design presented by the city’s Department of Transportation and Engineering after six years of studies and community input, and that legislation would be introduced next week to further lock that commitment in. Seelbach said the DOTE design is a “launching pad” from which stylistic changes such as green space can be made over the next couple months.

"What we're voting on today is DOTE's design for Liberty Street,” he said. “I want to make it clear that the design we're voting on is from our own experts."

Cranley says his opposition comes from the fact that a 100-year water main installed just 15 years ago would need to be relocated for the safety improvements. That will cost almost $1 million, according to city administration. He pointed out that, under the compromise ordinance, Bethany House, a nonprofit that serves the homeless, would only get $350,000, down from the $500,000 originally provided.

Money for Bethany House is going to be cut to move a water main,” he said. “Don’t cut from the homeless on a one-time capital investment."

But council members ignored Cranley’s charges that the supermajority was being “reckless” in “raiding the city’s reserves." The debate led to a momentary exhumation of old arguments around spending.

Pastor brought up the pay increases doled out to Cincinnati police and firefighters in 2016 outside the city’s normal collective bargaining process — a move pushed by Cranley and passed by council.

Seelbach pointed out that the city has committed $8 million from the sale of the Blue Ash airport that had been in a rainy-day fund, most of it to infrastructure for FC Cincinnati’s coming Major League Soccer stadium.

Landsman pushed that line of thought further, pointing out that a similar water main will need to be relocated for FC Cincinnati’s stadium, and that the city will pay for that relocation with part of the $32 million in infrastructure funding it is providing.

If we can do it for a soccer stadium, we can do it for a neighborhood,” he said.

Cranley, however, stood firm in his opposition to the spending ordinances, accusing council of dodging hard decisions at the expense of fiscal responsibility.

“You can’t say yes to everything,” he said, noting he would make the same decisions again in giving police and fire pay increases. “There are choices you have to make.”

Council still needs to consider and approve some minor adjustments to the spending package, but could do so in the coming weeks.

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