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After Long, Tense Meeting, Cincinnati Council Approves Budget

city hall
Bill Rinehart

The full Cincinnati City Council has approved the budget for the new fiscal year which starts July 1.

Before the council voted on the budget Wednesday, there were some tense moments during the public comment period. There was drama later in the meeting too, when Mayor John Cranley vetoed a funding ordinance to resume streetcar passenger service.

Police removed at least two people from the council chamber after they complained some people were not allowed to speak.  There was some shouting and Mayor John Cranley asked police to restore order in the chamber. The people removed were not arrested.

Cranley and Council Members P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young had heated exchanges about the mayor's role in restoring order.  

Sittenfeld and Young objected to people being forcibly removed who had not been able to speak.  

Cranley told Sittenfeld he could make the decisions "when he was mayor," and if Young wants to make decisions "he should run for mayor in a year-and-a-half."

Eventually, public comment continued and again Wednesday many of those speaking asked City Council to defund the police department and direct that funding to social service programs.

But that request did not happen when council acted on the budget.

The total budget for all city funds totals $1.13 billion. The general fund budget is $415.9 million and that covers basic services like public safety and public services.

City officials were tasked with closing a $73.4 million general fund deficit. uch of that shortfall is a projected decline in city income tax collections related to the coronavirus outbreak.

Council had two proposals concerning funding for the streetcar.  

A proposal from Council Member Chris Seelbach would spend $4.9 millionto resume streetcar passenger service, and part of that plan would be funded with monies from the city's 0.3% transit earning tax. That will expire in October when a new countywide sales tax is implemented to fund the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA).  That fund will have a surplus when the funding source for SORTA is transitioned.

City Manager Patrick Duhaney and the mayor had proposed spending about $3 million to maintain the system, but it would not operate with passengers through July 1, 2021.

Council approved the Seelbach proposal by a 7-2 vote, and Mayor Cranley immediately vetoed it.

He said in the middle of a pandemic and protests concerning systemic racism, council's priority shouldn't be funding the streetcar and making it free to ride. He called it a "luxury item."

"This is the worst budget in 100 years and we're going to start giving away streetcar service," Cranley said.
Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman said the council majority was breaking a promise streetcar supporters made years ago that city transit money would never be used for the streetcar.

Council Member Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney said to spend $3 million for an empty streetcar seemed "horrible."

"I just can't stomach that," Kearney said. "We've got it now, so we need to find a way to make it work."

Council can try to override the mayor's veto, but that can't happen until the next regularly scheduled council meeting, which is Aug. 5.

In the meantime, council did pass the $3 million proposal. Without that action, there would be no funds for the streetcar on July 1.  If council does override the veto, the $4.9 million would become effective.

City Council did make several changes to the budget proposed by the manager and mayor. Those include:

  • An update to the city's tax increment financing (TIF) program that requires 25% of those funds to be used for affordable housing. That makes $6.6 million immediately available for affordable housing
  • The city police department budget will not get an increase in the new fiscal year, and the $1 million the department was to get will go to fund the summer youth jobs program. There's also another $450,000 for the summer youth jobs program
  • An additional $50,000 for the Citizen Complaint Authority on top of the $150,000 increase in the proposed budget

Council also made the following additional allocations:

  • $500,000 for grants to small Black and Brown businesses
  • $85,000 for MORTAR (total of $150,000)
  • $1,000,000 for the fire department for capital expenses (total of $2.3 million)
  • $250,000 for eviction prevention (total of $500,000)
  • $1,000,000 for community safety response program
  • $75,000 for creating a Black and Brown artist fund
  • $100,000 for the Children's Home job readiness program
  • $240,000 for a police department continuous improvement program
  • $70,000 additional for neighborhood support program (total of $410,000)
  • $200,000 additional for African American Chamber of Commerce to assist businesses impacted by COVID-19 pandemic
  • $96,000 budget reduction that will allow for first 10 minutes free at parking meters in the neighborhoods, similar to what's offered Downtown. The reduction is the amount of money the city will not collect because of the change in the meter policy.

The approved budget has no layoffs or furloughs for city workers. But a number of positions will remain vacant and the city will offer an early retirement program to thin the workforce.

Budget and Finance Committee Chairman David Mann said there are a lot of unknowns about the budget, especially with COVID-19.

"I think we have put together a good package with the borrowed money that we haven't yet used," Mann said. "And the reserves that we've increased in recent years and prepares us to deal with whatever may come. We're in a better place than we thought we would be."

Council Member Sittenfeld said the council did try to listen to the public speakers and the people who have been protesting and demonstrating in recent weeks.

"And this budget is different than past budgets," Sittenfeld said. "And this is not going to be the last budget that we're going to pass. We're going to continue to have the community conversations and continue to invest in things that let people not just survive and not just get by, but actually thrive as members of this community."

The plan includes more than $32 million in budget cuts, and that means many departments will be asked to do more with less.

In addition, the city is receiving at least $32 million from the federal CARES Act that Congress passed in response to the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Right now, the city is anticipating closing the deficit with a $10.27 million emergency loan. But that amount could be reduced, or completely eliminated, if the city receives additional money from the state or federal governments.

Congress could pass another relief package, but so far nothing has been approved.

Jay Hanselman brings more than 10 years experience as a news anchor and reporter to 91.7 WVXU. He came to WVXU from WNKU, where he hosted the local broadcast of All Things Considered. Hanselman has been recognized for his reporting by the Kentucky AP Broadcasters Association, the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and the Ohio AP Broadcasters.