After years of wrangling, fretting and plenty of political tug-of-wars, and just six months before the streetcar is scheduled to start gliding passengers around downtown and Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati City Council almost passed the transit project's first-year operating budget today.
Council passed the budget out of the transportation committee earlier this week with a veto-proof 6-2 majority. But Councilman Kevin Flynn, who had been the swing vote in Council's 2013 battle with Mayor John Cranley to restart the streetcar, reversed course today and voted against the ordinance.
Without Flynn's vote, Cranley indicated he would veto the operating budget.
“I don’t feel in good conscience that we can proceed if Mr. Flynn is unhappy," Cranley said. "My assumption as of yesterday was that six people were supporting this.”
Flynn cited concerns about money set aside for contingencies in the first year of the streetcar's operation and start-up costs. His concerns boil down to where that money — $1.1 million for start-up costs and some $550,000 for contingencies — is coming from.
Flynn said he doesn't believe that all the contingency money will be spent on true contingencies — that the city will need to use it for extra foreseeable expenses — and that the money for the cushion should come from an already-existing construction contingency fund that still has $900,000.
“That’s what I’m asking for, because we’ve been told construction is essentially completed and there’s $900,000 in construction contingency fund left," Flynn told Council after his surprise "no" vote.
"In transportation yesterday, we heard people wanting to give free rides," Flynn said. "This is a very, very aggressive budget relative to ridership, relative to advertising dollars and sponsorship dollars. We can’t afford to give away free anything. And then, when I started thinking about this ordinance more, when I voted for the streetcar, I said we would not be using money form the general fund for the streetcar."
Much of the money in question comes from an increase in parking rates and hours in Over-the-Rhine and downtown. Other Council members pointed out, and Flynn acknowledged that the parking funds would not exist if Council hadn't changed parking policies to raise money for the streetcar. But he also said that since contingency money is left over for construction, it should be used first for start-up costs and contingencies. Flynn said he was worried that the construction contingency fund would evaporate if it wasn't used.
"I’ve been involved in enough construction projects to know — if there’s money left, they’ll find a way to spend it," he said. "I want to get that money out of there now.”
City Manager Harry Black sought to allay those concerns. “We are micromanaging the contingency side of the budget," he said. "Any action related to the contingency must be approved by the city manager.”
But Flynn held fast, and Council will now have to tinker with the budget to get the six votes necessary to avoid a mayoral veto.
Other council members who support the streetcar, including Yvette Simpson, said moving the money is reckless and that it can be transferred over after construction is finished. “The reason I’m concerned about pulling money out of contingency is because our project manager says pulling money out of contingency could damage the project," Simpson said. "We can believe what we want to believe or we can believe what our experts say.”
There are other concerns — the construction contingency fund is tied up in a process involving the Federal Transportation Authority, and the city must technically ask the FTA to use it, city administration pointed out.
Simpson said she was worried that a small amount of money could “short circuit” the enormous, $148 million federally funded project. “We have a start date of Sept. 2016, and a boatload of developers building along the route. If it doesn’t start on time, it’s going to cost us a lot more than $550,000 to fix it.”
The budget is due to the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority at the end of the month. The streetcar is expected to start full operation sometime in September.