Fighting Crime, Fighting Each Other

City tries to use entire federal crime-fighting grant but Hamilton County officials say, ‘Not so fast’

May 13, 2009 at 2:06 pm

As local officials bicker about who bears responsibility for monitoring defendants while they’re out of jail awaiting trial, a related battle over a $2.6 million federal crime-fighting grant has been waged privately.

Two Cincinnati City Council members, Republican Leslie Ghiz and Democrat Greg Harris, proposed spending $462,000 of the city’s portion to lease 75 electronic ankle bracelets to track defendants. That proposal appears headed for defeat after Mayor Mark Mallory and a council majority said the tracking and jailing of criminals is Hamilton County’s responsibility.

But the city’s initial plan for using the $2.6 million grant called for keeping the entire amount and giving none to the county. County commissioners balked at that plan, noting that federal guidelines required Hamilton County’s approval before any money could be disbursed.

Cincinnati Police Department supervisors wanted to use the entire amount for such purposes as buying computer equipment, hiring an attorney to assist with police training and purchasing $40,000 worth of Trek bicycles for officers.

The money comes from the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, which is awarded to communities nationwide each year based on a formula that uses crime rates and other factors. This year, communities will get even more money as part of President Obama’s economic stimulus package.

Hamilton County is considered a “disparate jurisdiction” under federal guidelines because it bears a disproportionate share of criminal justice costs in the region. That’s due to the county operating the jail and court system used by the city of Cincinnati. As a result, any plan to use grant money requires the county’s consent.

In past years, the city and county have agreed to a 50-50 split of the money.

Despite the restriction, the Cincinnati Police Department and city manager originally tried to convince Hamilton County to let it keep the entire $2.6 million grant this year — even resorting to what some critics say were questionable tactics.

City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. sent a March 30 memo to county administrators lobbying them to give up their portion. Because the city recently began paying the costs to house people in the county jail who were arrested by Cincinnati Police after being given a free ride for years, police thought they shouldn’t give more money to the county.

“Thinking here at staff level is that to do a reallocation of the funding with the sheriff getting a larger share is paying twice for the same service,” Dohoney wrote in the memo. “The city handles the cost of the prosecution of misdemeanor offenses. The county prosecutor handles our asset forfeiture claims and is paid 20 percent of all proceeds for doing that, and the city is projecting to pay significantly more than the $150,000 paid in 2008 for city inmates housed in the (county) jail.”

Under the city’s initial proposal, Cincinnati would have kept about $2.4 million, Hamilton County would have received $195,000 and the remainder would be divided among 13 other smaller jurisdictions.

If Hamilton County opposed the allocations, the memo adds, it could jeopardize making the federal deadline for the grant because the smaller jurisdictions already had given approval and would need to see the new proposal.

Not so fast, county officials replied.

The grant isn’t just for the Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, they say. It’s for the broader criminal justice system — including the courts, probation department and more — that happens to serve Cincinnati’s public safety needs more than any other community.

Further, city officials weren’t “paying twice” for the jail service because that would assume the grant money belonged to Cincinnati in the first place. The “disparate jurisdiction” approach means both the city and county are entitled to money to fund their respective responsibilities.

“It is a joint allocation,” says Hamilton County Commissioner David Pepper. “Both bodies of government must sign it. If the county doesn’t sign it, the city doesn’t get any money and vice-versa. No one is ‘giving’ money to anyone else.

“We’re tied at the hip on this. Just because the city gets more this time around doesn’t mean it gets to horde it all.”

County officials especially were irked when unnamed Cincinnati officials tried to get Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. to sign off on the original proposal, acting as the county’s representative. County officials appealed to Mallory, who ordered police and city staffers to draft a more equitable split. Now Cincinnati will get $1.4 million and the county $1.2 million.

Hamilton County will use its share to pay for 75 electronic ankle bracelets, hire three deputies to help monitor defendants using the devices, improve the risk assessment system used to determine who gets released early from jail and create an online system for judges to keep track of their defendants.

Meanwhile, Mallory blocked the proposal by Ghiz and Harris to lease another 75 ankle bracelets. The mayor used a procedural maneuver at City Council’s May 6 meeting to delay a vote.

Ghiz scoffs at the mayor, adding that buying the bracelets serves the public better than buying bicycles.

“I understand the splitting of the hairs legally that it may be the county’s responsibility, but it’s our problem,” Ghiz says. “Our people are the ones getting robbed, raped and beaten by these characters.”

If her and Harris’ proposal doesn’t pass by the May 18 federal deadline, Ghiz will try again. So far, they have the support of Councilmen Jeff Berding and Chris Monzel but need one more vote.

“I’m going to bring it in every single week, just with a different source of funding,” she says. “Next week it probably will be the $800,000 set aside for streetcars that isn’t used. If that doesn’t pass, the next week it will be something else.”