This Study Put Cincinnati Near the Bottom of the List for Well-Run Cities

Research ranking well-run U.S. cities put the Queen City very low on the list. Here's why it's more complicated than that.

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

Cincinnati is near the bottom of the list when it comes to well-run cities, according to research by financial website WalletHub that crunched a number of data points to rank 150 major U.S. municipalities. Does that mean Cincinnati is terribly managed? Not so fast. While the numbers WalletHub pulls highlight a number of clear issues, the overall picture is much more complicated.

But first, let’s dive into the ranking. The Queen City came in 117th in WalletHub’s study, well below other Ohio cities like Columbus (70), Dayton (78), Akron (88) and Toledo (106). At least we beat Cleveland, though, which came in at 142. Cincinnati also underperformed compared to a number of peer cities, including Nashville (111), Pittsburgh (104), Indianapolis (85), Louisville (30) and Lexington (4), which at No. 4 on the list would seem to be one of the best-run cities in the country. We’re doing better than St. Louis, however, which came in 136th in the study.

So, how did WalletHub arrive at these rankings, anyway? And are they accurate?

 The site considered 35 metrics across six categories, including the following:

• Financial stability — Moody’s credit rating and long-term outstanding debt per capita

• Education — share of K-12 public schools receiving above average scores by, high school graduation rate

• Health — infant mortality rate and average life expectancy, as well as quality of public hospitals and number of available hospital beds per capita

• Safety  — crime rates, auto accident fatalities, percentage of people experiencing homelessness in shelters

• Economy — unemployment and underemployment rates, median household income, income growth, job growth rate, percentage of population below poverty line, economic mobility, business growth, change in housing prices, home values, building permit increases

• Infrastructure and pollution — a number of measures including road quality, commute time, transit access, traffic congestion, walkability, bikeability, water and air quality, greenhouse gas emissions per capita and parkland.

WalletHub’s study then used a weighted average for each city based on its scores in the above areas and compared that against the city’s overall yearly budget. The data WalletHub considered came from federal government sources as well as from generally respected think tanks like the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

So, what sank Cincinnati’s rating? The city was 98 out of 150 cities for overall quality of services (before considering how much it spends to provide those services per capita). While we got high marks in the infrastructure and pollution category (we were 15) we came in 132 in the country when it comes to health. That’s likely due in part to the city’s infant mortality rate — we have among the highest in the country. We also ranked well below average in education (125), safety (86), economy (116) and financial stability (93).

There are certainly reasons for that. Cincinnati has a high poverty rate — about 30 percent — which can impact all manner of other metrics as well. The city receives less money from the state for things like transit, education and general operations compared to cities in some other states. The city also has struggled with debt related to its public employee pensions.

Beyond those factors, close watchers of politics will question whether Cincinnati's form of government impacted those scores, especially after this year's showdown between the mayor and city manager. Cincinnati has an odd hybrid structure, with the mayor holding more power than the ceremonial role the position plays in a traditional council-city manager form of government but less than in a strong-mayor form. Should Cincinnati pick a side, as some politicians and pundits have suggested, and stick with it? If so, which one? Experts say it's hard to make generalizations about the efficacy of specific forms of city government, though.

"Both systems have been tried and found wanting because city management is hard," says University of Colorado Denver Public Policy Professor Mary E. Guy. "That which works best in some places does not work so well in others. And whatever works well for awhile ultimately stubs its toe and gives rise to calls for the other." Guy does note that generally, strong mayor forms of government seem to work best in large cities.

All that said, a big question you could (and probably should) ask: How real is this rating? Journalists generally look at these sorts of studies wearily, but this one does use a number of important considerations and real, reliable data to arrive at its conclusions. That doesn’t mean the rankings haven’t been controversial in the past, however.

Last year, Washington, D.C.’s NPR affiliate took WalletHub to task for declaring the city (which also functions as its own state in many ways) the worst-run city in the country.

The problem, according to a journalist at WAMU 88.5, is that D.C. is saddled with a number of expenses normally handled by state governments and rolled into state budgets, meaning that when its spending is compared to its provision of city services, it comes up short on paper. WalletHub says its methodology doesn’t disadvantage D.C. — which came in last place again this year — but others disagree.

One thing to keep in mind about the study: The top five best-run cities (at least according to WalletHub) also ranked highest for budget per capita. That means they provided the best services as a proportion of their budget, but they also had the most money to spend per person.

Also worth considering: Many of the cities at the top of WalletHub’s list have small populations (generally less, often much less, than Cincinnati’s 300,000 people, with Lexington’s 310,000 and 10th-ranked Kansas City’s 600,000 people as outliers) while the bottom of the rankings are dominated by big cities like Philadelphia (134), Los Angeles (138), Chicago (140), New York (148), Detroit (149) and aforementioned D.C. (dead last). It’s almost as if running a city gets much harder the  larger and more economically diverse it gets. Many of those large cities also have among the lowest amounts of money to spend per capita in their city budgets.

Interestingly, the cities clustered around Cincinnati in the rankings are almost entirely mid-sized. Riverside, Calif., which came in just above Cincinnati, has about 324,000 people. Buffalo, N.Y., which came in just below us, has about 257,000. That trend extends out through most of the third quartile of the list. That’s not to say it’s the only factor in the rankings — Buffalo, Cincinnati and Riverside are different in a lot of ways, with very different political, economic and geographic contexts that can also play into a city's performance.

Finally, municipal governments vary. In addition to the tiff over D.C. mentioned above, there are wrinkles that make comparing even mid-sized municipalities apples-to-apples more difficult. For example, both Louisville and Lexington ranked much higher than nearby Cincinnati in WalletHub’s study. But both also have a combined city-county form of government that differs greatly from the situation in Cincinnati, where the city and county have a less-cooperative, some would even say adversarial, relationship. Proposals to build more cooperation across county and city departments have progressed slowly, if at all. And Cincinnati gets no help with transit from the county, unlike most cities its size.

As evidenced by Cincinnati's showing among its peer cities mentioned above, the city seems to have some work to do. But does that mean it's one of the least well-run cities in the country? That's not nearly as clear.

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