As the Cincinnati Reds Opening Day Parade continued past CityBeat’s Race Street office on April 1, then-mayoral candidate John Cranley stood inside our lobby for about 20 minutes complaining to CityBeat Editor Danny Cross and me about a recent blog we published that included criticisms of his budget proposal. Cranley had been walking in the parade but deemed our supposedly unfair treatment reason enough to take a detour.
At the center of the issue was whether casino revenue would come in at $10 million, as the outgoing city administration projected, or $21 million for the year, as Cranley claimed.
“I would put my track record of being the chairman of the budget committee for eight years, which balanced budgets without layoffs, ahead of the people at the city that estimated the costs of the streetcar,” Cranley told me for the original story.
Our CityBeat colleagues, many of which were drinking beer and enjoying the celebration, slipped in and out to refill their cups and get snacks, shooting us smirks as the debate carried on. The conversation ended respectfully enough — Cranley said his piece and we reiterated our goal to report inconsistencies in policy proposals.
Fast forward seven months: Cincinnati Budget Director Lea Eriksen announced at a council meeting on Nov. 21 that casino revenue might come in below even the city’s conservative $10 million estimate for the year, less than half of Cranley’s prediction.
The news should come as little surprise. For the story that Cranley disputed so adamantly, multiple sources told me that statewide casino revenues had consistently failed expectations in the past few years because the legalization of racinos, which enabled racetrack gambling, allowed people to take their gambling elsewhere.
Still, Cranley insisted otherwise — and it’s now clear he was wrong, even after vocally staking his credibility on the issue.
Cranley might be putting himself in a similar situation following the city’s announcement that canceling the streetcar project might leave the city with only $7.5-$24.5 million of the $132.8 million project after accounting for sunk costs and close-out expenses.
The mayor-elect insists the city’s numbers are wrong. Asked why at a press conference following the city’s presentation, Cranley responded that it doesn’t cost $40 million to say stop.
Pressed again to explain why Cincinnatians should believe him over the city’s team of lawyers and budget experts and the streetcar project executive who has been at this work for decades and just recently won a prestigious planning award for his work on The Banks, Cranley reiterated the same line, “It doesn’t cost $40 million to say stop.”
Once again, the context seems to be Cranley’s undoing. Under normal circumstances, it might not cost tens of millions to say stop. But this isn’t a normal situation. Cities don’t normally yank projects that are in the middle of construction and tied to numerous contracts and supply orders.
Besides, it absolutely does cost the city $40 million to say stop. While local officials involved in the streetcar project acknowledge that the provided cancellation costs are simply the best estimates they have right now, the federal government has explicitly stated that it will take back its $40.9 million in grant money for the streetcar project and another $4 million would be left to the discretion of Gov. John Kasich if the project doesn’t adequately progress.
The federal grants are another area in which Cranley defied the warnings of city officials and insisted again and again that he’ll be able to lobby the federal government to reallocate the funds to other projects, such as the interchange at Interstate 71 and Martin Luther King Drive.
City officials said no, that’s not how federal grants work. The grants were allocated by the U.S. Department of Transportation after the federal government vetted dozens of transportation projects around the country. It’s unlikely a highway interchange project, no matter how many jobs it would produce, falls under the same ambitious framework as a streetcar for a White House that’s clearly interested in promoting light rail projects around the country.
After multiple confirmations from the federal government saying canceling the project would cost the city its federal funds, it’s more than safe to say the outgoing city administration was right and Cranley was wrong.
But Cranley still says he’s confident the city’s cancellation numbers are overblown and false, even though he hasn’t run the numbers himself. Maybe it’s worth keeping in mind how confident he was with the federal grants and casino revenue numbers. Defending one of those was important enough to confront a reporter and his editor on a celebratory day to insist he was right.
CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: [email protected] or @germanrlopez