News: Not Streicher's Money

Council miffed at chief for ignoring spending orders

Dec 12, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Graham Lienhart

(L-R) Police Chief Thomas Streicher and City Manager Milton Dohoney overrode council's spending plans.

Cincinnati officials are grappling with what's more important: cops walking their beats or making repairs to police headquarters and hosting a fancy conference.

City council has made the use of police walking patrols through city neighborhoods a priority over the past three years, and some members even made those patrols a focus of their reelection campaigns in 2007.

But the city manager and Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr., however, apparently had a different view of the idea.

Council members recently learned that the police department didn't use $2 million allocated for overtime that was supposed to fund the walking patrols this year. Instead, the money was spent on completely unrelated items at Streicher's insistence, including renovations to police headquarters, elevator repairs, postage costs and to help pay for hosting an International Police Executive Symposium here for five days next May.

"I'm very concerned about it," says City Councilman John Cranley. "We OK'd that money and it didn't happen. It's very upsetting."

A Democrat who heads council's Finance Committee, Cranley says Streicher and City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. tried to obscure the diversion from council's attention by using "reappropriation ordinances" that transferred the money in small amounts from one account to another throughout the year, without making the source of the funds clear.

Although the process is technically legal, Cranley and other city council members say it violates the intent of how they expected the money to be spent.

"I'm incredibly angry," says City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, a Republican.

"The chief ignored us completely but it's the city manager's job to ensure the money is spent how we intend it to be."

Council's call
Walking patrols by police have been a central component in helping residents feel safer on city streets after a spike in homicides over the past few years that culminated with 89 killings in 2006, the most since Cincinnati began keeping reliable records in 1950.

A recent study commissioned by the city shows Cincinnati's homicide rate increased 190 percent between 2000 and 2004. In 2000, Cincinnati was listed as 111th among major urban areas in the United States for homicides per capita; that ranking jumped to 23rd just four years later.

During the same period, the city's violent crime rate increased more than 31 percent. Cincinnati's rank jumped from 85th among major urban areas in 2000 to 36th in 2004, statistics indicate.

To combat the trend, city council in recent years has hired more officers and allocated money for so-called "police visibility overtime" — walking and bicycle patrols by officers that would increase police presence on streets. Under the city's Take Back Our Streets initiative that began in 2005, high visibility walking and bicycle patrols occurred at least three times a week, and in some instances between five and seven times a week, throughout crime hot spots in neighborhoods in each of Cincinnati's five police districts.

The patrols, mostly in summer months, were designed to suppress gang-related and drug-related criminal activity, which is responsible for most of the homicides and violent crimes in the city, police supervisors say.

In 2005 alone, the initiative was responsible for 1,810 arrests and the seizure of 19 guns, police reports indicate. The patrols that year — consisting of 15,842 hours of police either walking, biking or riding horses through neighborhoods — resulted in more than 26,000 citizen and business contacts.

The patrols were done in 2005 and 2006 using overtime money allocated by city council. Although council allocated a similar amount this year, Streicher recently told council members that the extra money wasn't needed to conduct the patrols and was used for other purposes. Officers could still accomplish the increased level of patrols during regular hours, the chief added.

"They weren't able to do it with straight time before," Ghiz says. "How are they able to now?"

Council members find the situation especially odd because, when they proposed last year to add a police recruit class for 2007 so more officers could be hired, Dohoney told them that allocating more money for overtime would accomplish the same purpose without incurring the long-term costs of training, equipment and health insurance. Persuaded by that argument, council opted for using overtime once again.

In an e-mail last week to Cranley's office, City Budget Director Lea Carroll wrote that the changes were done partially to help the city achieve its goal of having $5 million in carryover funds for 2008.

"That's not fiscally responsible because it's not authorized, and that money would be better spent to help communities reduce crime," Cranley says.

Council's allocation for overtime "was clearly binding based on what we told the manager last year," Cranley says. "We were elected, and we have the right to say how money is spent. It's OK for the administration and the chief to disagree, but we get to make the call."

Cranley, Ghiz and others point to the wording of one of the transfer ordinances given to council to prove that the chief and administrators were trying to hide the source of the funds.

The ordinance states, "An amount of $625,000 is needed in contract services in the police department due to unforeseen expenses related to the renovation of police headquarters, an unbudgeted increase in postage costs for false alarms, unbudgeted elevator repairs, unbudgeted municipal garage charges and other non-personnel costs. Personnel savings within the department offset this increase."

Those "personnel savings," it turns out, were the police visibility overtime patrols.

Ghiz says council became curious after receiving some complaints about a lack of patrols from residents in late summer.

"We don't get complaints about that until summer, because that's when people start to notice," she says.

´No excuse'
Sources in the police department say Streicher has been upset that no money was budgeted to renovate District One offices in recent budgets and also has been adamant about nabbing the International Police Executive Symposium for Cincinnati in 2008. The city will spend at least $100,000 to host the conference of police chiefs from around the world.

The diversion of funds comes at a time when Cincinnati's violent crime rate has increased at a faster pace than the national average.

From 2005 to 2006, the city's violent crime rate jumped 2.1 percent per capita, compared to 1 percent nationally, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety. During the same period Cincinnati's homicide rate increased 14.5 percent while the national rate jumped just 0.8 percent.

Streicher couldn't be reached for comment. Police hadn't yet responded to a request from CityBeat for documents connected to the decision not to use the overtime funds for walking patrols.

Based on Mayor Mark Mallory's recommendation, city council recently approved a 7 percent salary increase for Dohoney in 2008, which will add $12,950 to his $185,000 salary next year. Based on the overtime revelations, some members now are having second thoughts.

"If I had known this two months ago, he would not have gotten a 7 percent increase," Ghiz says. "I had concerns about giving him that much money anyhow, but he's done a pretty good job in other areas. This is unbelievable. There's no excuse."