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Human Services Chamber director talks funding, working with City Hall and why politics is inescapable

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Courtesy of Cincinnati Public Schools
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Mike Moroski started his role at the Human Services Chamber in November 2021, right before winning re-election to the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education, where he has served since 2018.

Recent changes at Cincinnati City Hall aim to make funding for non-profit community groups more reliable. The new executive director of the Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County is hopeful a new city council and mayor will continue that momentum.

Mike Moroski took on the job at the start of November (right before winning re-election to the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education). WVXU's Becca Costello spoke with him about the work being done across the county and where he sees opportunities for progress.

Becca Costello: Talk a little bit about the Human Services Chamber and its role in this human services funding.

Mike Moroski: A little backstory — so I was on the Human Services Advisory Committee for eons in a former life, so I'm very intimately familiar with that whole process. And you know the history of it, it was designed to take the politics out of the process, which it doesn't really. I mean, it's almost impossible to take politics out of any process. That's not a slam against anybody, it's just a fact. And especially when you're talking about human services, and you're talking about money, and you're talking about real people and real people's lives — it's political, period. So anyway, that's my caveat, I guess, to begin.

So the human services process was moved to United Way where the decisions are largely made, or the recommendations rather, and then given to the city and the city more often than not takes the recommendations of the HSAC and moves forward with it.

Our role as the Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County is to serve as a collective voice of 80 member agencies. That's everyone from a grassroots with a quarter-million dollar budget to Talbert House, Freestore Foodbank, United Way, and everybody in between. So that's a lot of needs and a lot of issues from mental health, education, aging, disability services, homelessness, etc. And so our role is to — on the massive Venn diagram of human services — where do all of these agencies align? And then my role within that is to help push those issues with the local government.

As far as it relates to the Human Services Fund at the city, our role is to advocate, as always, for full funding — 1.5% [of the General Fund] full funding.

[Reporter's note: The city has been funding human services programs since 1981. When it started, 1.5% of the city's General Fund was dedicated to supporting these efforts. That amount has been reduced in recent years because of tight budgets and deficits. In 2017, Council voted to incrementally increase its appropriations to human services over a five-year period to eventually restore the fund back to 1.5%. The goal for the fiscal year 2022 budget was 1.4% of the General Fund. The budget includes $8 million total for "human services and violence prevention," or about 1.7% of the General Fund - surpassing the goal, according to the mayor and city manager. Of that, about $5 million is in the actual Human Services Fund administered by the United Way, or about 1.1% of the General Fund. The Human Services Chamber has often argued the 1.5% goal should be for that fund, with a competitive bid process reviewed by an independent committee, and should not include money directly allocated by council, like $750,000 for the Center for Closing the Health Gap.]

A number of our members in the chamber receive dollars from that fund. And our job is to make sure the city is held accountable to what they say they'll do, which is to fund human services through this particular fund, and to do it equitably and ethically.

Oftentimes, some agencies will find themselves in the budget, so they don't have to mess with human services funding. Sometimes community development block grant dollars, CDBG dollars, are used for human services. So there's always moving parts and there's always the potential to pit agencies against each other. And I think the value of having a chamber for human services is that it's the team, we are in this together. There is a lot more crossover than we often find out because we don't always talk to each other.

Our human services agencies are doing the work nobody else wants to do and filling in the gaps where government fails. The not-for-profit sector was quite literally born out of government failure. We've been around for a long time and we're experts at this stuff — we know what will make the community better for everybody.

Sometimes a lot of bad is done in the name of good. And one of the worst things I've seen in my 21-year career in this work, is that our agencies get pitted against one another. [Funding is] always used as some kind of bargaining chip; it's always on the chopping block, it's always kicked around as something that has to go. And I don't foresee it being any different going forward [although] I have high hopes for the new council and the mayor.

RELATED: Cincinnati's funding for nonprofits hasn't always been reliable. Recent changes at City Hall aim to fix that

Explain more about organizations being pitted against one another. Are you referring to the city's human services funding facilitated by the United Way? Or when Council allocates money directly to organizations? Or both?

I just think the whole world of funding for human services agencies inadvertently can have that impact.

Let's say for example, a priority of the city is anti-violence initiatives. There's an agency that does that very well [and] there's another agency that does that very well. And one of those agencies is put directly into the budget because of a relationship they might have. Agency B then gets thrown into this pot to fight it out with three other agencies, that also do great work, for $50,000 or something, while Agency A got a quarter million directly in the budget. That can create unnecessary strife between agencies that are doing similar or complementary work.

I have nothing against pet projects. People get excited about running for office because of something they've been involved in. For me, it was education and anti-poverty stuff — that's what got me excited to run for office. So I get that, I don't have any problem with that. But people are not elected to implement their projects, they're elected to benefit the public good writ large. And my role as the new director of the chamber is similar. My role is not to come in and say, here's the things that Mike Moroski thinks are important and so we're going to do them. That's not it. It's trying to figure out where these 80 agencies align.

What would you change about human services funding, if anything?

I would make it easier, and I'd make it more streamlined. And I would take out, you know, half of the reporting. I say half — I don't know what percentage I would take out. But it's cumbersome, unnecessarily cumbersome. These agencies are strapped for time, they're strapped for money, they're solving the world's biggest problems, they're doing it largely on their own. And we ask human services agencies to do more reporting than we ask any private company to do.

I'm not saying people shouldn't have to report what they're doing. But I do sometimes take issue with how much the human services folks' feet are held to the fire, when other folks are kind of allowed to do whatever they want.

Housing it in the United Way is a sound idea. I do think if it was solely within the purview of Cincinnati City Council, it would be 10 times messier. I don't think that's a good idea.

The only other thing I would change is probably obvious, but it's put more money in the fund. It's not up to me, but I can advocate for it. And from my new position, I certainly intend to, at least to have it at that 1.5% [of the General Fund].

Is there anything the chamber will do differently moving forward under your leadership? Or when you took the job, was there anything right off the bat that you thought, OK, this is the direction I want to take us?

What I would love to see is that the elected folks at City Hall and the county commissioners see us as a resource. Or, you know, the city council of Mount Healthy, or the trustees in Colerain Township. That they see my members as the experts, because they are.

I think people look at our sector as like a cute kind of thing. Oftentimes when I tell people I work with kids experiencing homelessness, there's always this kind of like, pat on the back thing. Like, 'That's really nice. That is really good.' And I'm not saying it's not, but it's serious work.

I would love to see the new council and the county and the new mayor, I'd love to see them call me. [Let's say] council person A is really interested in mental health and she calls me and says, "Mike, I'm really interested in mental health, I really would love to do some interesting legislation on making things better for people dealing with that in the city. Can you connect me to the people who know more about that than anything?" And I will say, 'Yes, I can. And it's very simple for me to do that.'

So let's be efficient. Look, we have enough resources in this city to do good stuff for people. We have enough smart people in the city to do good stuff for people. And we're all running around in circles. We don't need to, and I think that's something I would like to position the chamber as: a repository for expert insight, research, data on issues that impact the city. And I think it would be a sea change.

I think government is important, and government was designed to benefit the public good. Without getting too deep in philosophy ... I think, quite frankly, we've gotten away from that. And it's become about other things — locally, federally, Republican, Democrat, it has become about other things.

I think we have an opportunity in Cincinnati with literally an entirely new City Hall. It's completely different. But the problem, too, is that there's the election cycle, and that's a problem to sustain partnerships. It's a beautiful thing regarding democracy because people have to earn their job back from their bosses who are the voters, but it can be hard if it's not baked into the ethos of the city, and it's not at present. At present it is very much, who is on council and what do they care about?

And I do think the reason we see this disconnect is because I don't know that government is seen as being there to benefit the public good. So not to get too Spider Man, but you know, with great power comes great responsibility. It's true, though. It's great.

Becca Costello grew up in Williamsburg and Batavia (in Clermont County) listening to WVXU. Before joining the WVXU newsroom, she worked in public radio & TV journalism in Bloomington, Indiana and Lincoln, Nebraska. Becca has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including from local chapters of the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists, and contributed to regional and national Murrow Award winners. Becca has a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University and a bachelor's degree from Cincinnati Christian University. Becca's dog Cincy (named for the city they once again call home) is even more anxious than she is.