Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tom Garber: 1942-2008







Anyone who attended, participated or watched any major parade in the last seven years in Cincinnati or (later) Hamilton County will most likely have seen two people in almost every one: 1) me and 2) Tom Garber (my uncle).

Both of us loved campaigning, and loved parades in particular.
And through all my years campaigning or parading while in office, amid so many wonderful campaign staff and volunteers, no one marched in more parades or campaigned and greeted people with more enthusiasm than Uncle Tom.

Campaigns are tiring. Parades are tiring. The crowded ones in particular are hard work. And the wet ones can be, well, very wet and very cold. Most people do a few, but then move on (understandably). Not Uncle Tom. Into his mid 60s, Uncle Tom almost never missed a parade. Amid many changing parts and people, he was the constant. The most reliable volunteer we had.
And he became someone that all other staff and volunteers would learn to count on, and would call for help. Not just to walk a parade. But to work it, and show others how to do the same. If we needed a driver, he drove; a banner carrier, he carried; someone to pass out bags, he passed out 1,000. And his enthusiasm rubbed off on everyone else.

Tom passed away last night after a tough bout with cancer, and after enduring more medical challenges over 35 years than any one person should have to shoulder.

Even with those challenges, he led life like he walked and worked those parades. Always reliable--and with energy and enthusiasm. He had fun. Loved meeting people, joking with people, having fun. And this great athlete faced and overcame decades of medical challenges and surgeries without an ounce of self-pity, and without any complaining. He personified strength--quiet, stoic strength.

Tom left this world with three wonderful children who are doing great things, and a loving companion in Elaine. We pray for them in particular as they mourn his passing.

But like the thousands of citizens he met along parade routes, he touched so many others with his energy, enthusiasm and love of life. And to those who knew that all that enthusiasm bounded forth despite underlying challenges and pains that he had to endure almost every day, he inspired us with his strength and resilience.

After leaving a profound mark on all that knew him, Uncle Tom, deeply loved by his family, will be sorely missed.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Look at the Future: Green Roofing the Museum Center

A story in today's paper gave us a glimpse of our "green" future--discussing "green roofing" the Museum Center.

As a member of our County Stormwater District, I can't tell you how important it is that we implement green roof, permeable pavement and other "green infrastructure" concepts as much as possible.

These steps help minimize stormwater runoff and sewer overflows, and, ultimately, help clean up our local streams and rivers. They also have a broader environmental impact by reducing the "Urban Heat Island Effect." (Go here and here for more information). They also save us a lot of money versus the alternative solution--building bigger and bigger "gray" sewer infrastructure to handle all the volumes of stormwater that results if it is not diverted. As in so many other areas, a little prevention upfront saves millions on the back end, in addition to being good for the environment.

We have a long way to go (other cities like Chicago have really pushed this aggressively--the photo above is of Chicago's City Hall, courtesy of Roofscapes, Inc.), but it's great to see the Museum Center and other institutions such as Christ Hospital, the Red Cross, and the Cincinnati Fire Department take this step.

And in 2008, I was happy to support (as a member of the Stormwater District) green roof demonstration projects at the Cincinnati Zoo's Giraffe House and at the Civic Garden Center in Avondale. We'll look to do even more as a community in 2009 and beyond.

Friday, December 26, 2008

COAST and the 2009 Budget: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

One of my first blog entries discussed the amusing monthly newsletter sent out from leaders at the ironically named COAST (Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes). (Ironic, because when COAST leadership and allies ran the County from 2005-2006, they did the exact opposite of their name--they increased spending and administrative/commissioner budgets, broke the County bank on bad deals like Butler County, a costly wild goose chase on the Banks, and selling Drake for far less than its value, and pushed for a tax increase that the voters soundly rejected.)

Well, since my initial blog, they've been ranting for six months about the "big taxing, big spending" budget that the County Commission planned on passing for 2009. I thought it'd be interesting to do a full inventory of their budget claims, and what the truth ultimately turned out to be:

- On July 3, they proclaimed that we were planning to raise the sales tax. At the time, I said that was false, and it turned out to be.

- On August 7, they claimed we were "back again", this time with plans to raise an "arts" tax. Honestly, I still have no idea what they were talking about. Needless to say, no arts tax proposal has ever come forward.

- On August 7, they criticized us for spending too much--even though we had just imposed 6% across the board cuts, cutting even further into the unanimous (meaning, it was supported by their ally Pat DeWine) 2008 budget, which had already cut things that COAST and its allies had never bothered to cut when they actually were in charge.

- On August 7, they also attacked us for refusing to reallocate money that we invest promoting our region for conventions and visitors. I've repeatedly debunked how their proposed move would be both illegal, and economically unwise, as, due to our investment, this is one of the few parts of our economy that is growing--doing so at record pace. Oh well.

- And on October 24, they put out the false word that we had decided to spend County dollars on Planned Parenthood, another false accusation, but unfortunately one that effectively deceived thousands of concerned citizens. In a later newsletter, they even tried to fool their followers that the state money involved there could be spent on our general fund budget, another completely false statement.

- Then came our budget hearings. Once again, they said we planned to raise the sales tax, they pushed us again to illegally reallocate Convention Center money, said we had cancelled managed competition (when we have just implemented one successfully), etc. Yawn. More broadly, they said we were planning to continue our "spending binge," even though our prior two budgets, and the spending therein, had been unanimously approved with their ally (Commissioner DeWine), and we were about to pass a budget that reduced spending by $30m, to a level of 1999 spending--and far below the spending increases they oversaw when in charge.

- But their (and my) new favorite topic was their accusation that we were not cutting from our own so-called "bloated" commissioner and administrator budgets as we made tough cuts elsewhere. Ironically, it was when COAST leadership and allies ran the County that this part of the budget became, in their words, "grossly bloated" in the first place: on their watch, the Commissioners added administrative staff, several of whom made $140k+ per year; spent dollars on outside contracts, equipment, redesigned kitchens, rip-off consultants whose reports sit on shelves, etc.

- As I explained in an earlier blog, after COAST leadership and its allies left after my election, we have taken a hacksaw to all that spending--getting rid of high paid positions (both those who directly served the commissioners, and some who reported to the administrator), reducing other commissioner/administration spending dramatically, etc. In all, the commissioner/administration budget we inherited has been reduced by 45%. And in our 2009 budget, we reduced that budget by about 30%, and imposed furloughs for the greatly reduced staff that remains to do all the work that was previously done by the far larger and higher paid COAST leadership team.

- To cap it all off, on Monday we passed the most fiscally conservative budget in decades. We didn't raise taxes. We took spending to the level it was at in 1999. This was challenging, and involved a lot of painful cuts, but it was necessary--given the economy in particular.

This budget not only defied all of COAST's predictions, accusations and attacks, but also stands in stark contrast to the record of COAST leadership/allies themselves, who increased spending when they were in in charge, and made none of the cuts our 2008 and 2009 budgets did. Simply put, our level of spending is well below the level left by COAST leadership and allies at the end of 2006.

Of course, even as we rejected new taxes and dramatically reduced spending, the Coalition Against Additional Spending and Taxes still couldn't seem to get the math (or at least their own principles) right. Their final missive contained, predictably, the same old criticisms. Beyond even that, though, they criticized us for NOT supporting NEW SPENDING.

Believe it or not, the final DeWine budget proposal was essentially to lay off more sheriff's deputies, gut future economic development, and use that money to rush headlong (the new DeWine "plan" was still being drafted 25 minutes after our final budget meeting began) into another long-term jail rental deal--but this time in Campbell County. Given that the 2006 Butler County deal (draining $10M from the county's reserves) is a primary reason we're in the mess that we're in , and that we currently have more than 100 empty beds in our corrections system, rushing headlong into another long-term rental commitment made no sense.

So we voted against this major, reactive, out-of-the-blue commitment of new spending.

But to end the year on a final strange and head-scratching note, the Coalition against additional spending actually attacked us for rejecting this new spending.

Still Room at the Inn

I posted on the 24th about the numbers at the jail, and people seemed as curious as I did that there appeared to be ample space in our justice system. Well, the numbers today are about the same:
  • Justice Center: 55 jailbeds empty
  • Reading Road: 43 beds empty
  • Turning Point: 11 beds empty
  • River City: 16 beds empty
  • EMUs: 5 more being used than on the 24th (but still 8 fewer than five days ago)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

May all families and residents enjoy a Merry Christmas today!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Strange Numbers

After much discussion in recent days and weeks (and after rejecting Pat DeWine's proposal that we rush headlong into commiting $100,000s in new spending to rent jailspace from Campbell County), today's jail population numbers are puzzling indeed:
  • Justice Center: 58 jailbeds are empty
  • Reading Road: 42 beds are empty
  • Turning Point: 11 beds are empty
  • River City: 21 beds empty
  • Electronic Monitoring Units: 13 less being used than just three days ago

Dog License Campaign: Off to a Good Start

Earlier this year, we faced a dilemma. Because fewer than 40% of dog owners have the required license, our revenue from dog license fees is far too low to pay for the dog warden services those fees are intended to support. Our County general fund then has to subsidize this state mandated service, taking hundreds of thousands of dollars away from other public safety functions. To solve this, our administration initially proposed that we double the fee.

We said no. Rather than doubling the dog license fee on those who are already doing the right thin, we decided to do a little experiment: Keep the fee at $13, engage in much more aggressive marketing, work with pet stores and veterinarians to help spread the word on the dog license requirement and benefit, include mailers in the Cincinnati WaterWorks bills, and create a public-private partnership with Iams, who is now giving away valuable dog merchandise to anyone who purchases the dog license.

I announced this initiative when the license renewal season began on December 1, and even served as the grand marshall of the Reindog Parade, along with Clifford, to help spread the word.

So far (knock on wood), the new approach seems to be working.

These are preliminary numbers, but SPCA Cincinnati, who is leading this effort and also directly sells some of the licenses (people can also buy them directly through the auditor, including renewing your license online if you already have one), reports that between Dec. 1 and Dec. 22, they have sold more than 1,000 licenses. That is a 99% increase from the numbers they saw in same period one year ago! Hopefully others are seeing the same results.

If you are a dog owner, you still have until the end of January to get the license. Go here or here to get it. It's good for your dog (ensures their safe return), it's a good deal (Iam's supplies you get are more valuable than the $13 fee), it helps the County budget, and it's the law.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A New Assignment: CCAO Board

One development I forgot to mention amid all of our budget work was my recent election to the Board of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio (CCAO). The full list of members is here.

As our recent success on the Medicaid issue and other budgetary items has made clear, being better connected to Columbus and our statehouse is critical to our success as a County, and can make a difference of millions of dollars for our county and local budgets. It's also critically important that we as a County are aware of and learn from successes of other Counties tackling the same problems we are--from criminal justice, to trimming budgets, to economic growth.

Being part of the CCAO provides a great way for Hamilton County to benefit in both these ways, and joining the board of CCAO, representing one of Ohio's large urban counties, will allow me to shape and take even more advantage of these opportunities.

UPDATE: I also have been appointed chair of the committee that handles the issues and challenges of the major metropolitan/urban counties of the state.

I'm honored to join the board, and to chair this committee, and look forward to that service, not to mention the ideas and legislative successes it will help bring to Hamilton County.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The 2009 Budget: Painful, Responsible, Necessary

Today, we passed our 2009 County budget.

For media summaries of what we did, go here, here, and here.  

For the actual budget documents, go here (passed unanimously), and here (statement).

It’s safe to say that it was the toughest budget I’ve faced of the seven I’ve been a part of. It was difficult and challenging for all. But it also was an important, and necessarily tough, budget, given the times we are in.

Most important, at a tough time, County leadership came together across party lines and agreed to a fiscally prudent, economically competitive budget—with some very tough and unpleasant short-term pain, but one that positions us to make medium- and long-term gains. I commend the County's elected and appointed leaders, all of whom stepped up at this difficult time to cooperate and make tough choices. I also appreciate the very hard work of our elected representatives in Columbus--who enacted a number of items at the last minute that will have, long-term, millions of dollars in positive impact to all the governments in Hamilton County. This budget was all about bipartisanship.

Key points of our budget:

No tax increase. We resisted the temptation so many other governments are falling for to ask taxpayers to pay more—saying no to a sales tax increase and a property tax increase. In this economy, when families and businesses are already struggling to make ends meet, and we need to position ourselves to compete economically, raising taxes was the last thing we should do.

Dramatic reduction in spending. As a result of declining revenues, and without new taxes, the 2009 budget will be the most fiscally tight budget passed in decades in this county. Usually, government spending increases every year. Instead, we are reducing spending by more than $30M from the 2008 level, and will fall to a level of spending the County was at in 1999! People want government to live within it's means, and that is what we are doing.

Reforms and sacrifice—beginning at the top. We heard calls that sacrifice should start at the top, and that’s what exactly we are doing. In addition to having dramatically reduced a bloated commissioner and administrative budget that we inherited from the prior majority, we instigated 10-day furloughs for top management, our own staffs, and ourselves (although I will work the 10 days of the furlough, I will not be paid for them). Other items--such as no more free parking for elected officials, the Sheriff getting rid of many take home cars, and other reductions in administrative budgets--will all take place. These measures won't balance the budget, but they are critical to send the right message.

No phantom dollars. We are not allocating dollars we are not certain we will have. Some of the most costly mistakes made before I arrived at the Commission arose from budgeting with rose-colored glasses: committing to pay millions to Butler County, with no source of revenue locked in; or proposing vague cuts or new revenues, with no certainty they would lead to real savings—and then spending those possible savings before they ever came in. Call it the “red light camera” problem. Instead of relying on phantom revenues or cuts to get through a tough time, we refused to budget on anything but the most fiscally conservative projections, and the most certain savings. It made life more difficult in the short term, but far better in the long-term.

Priorities: Safety and Economic Growth. To the best of our ability, (since we have so many mandates we must meet), we prioritized two things—public safety, and economic growth.

Public safety. We delayed technology investments and made other cuts totaling close to $1 million, and reprogrammed those dollars to public safety priorities: such as the Sheriff’s department (for patrols and corrections--his discretion), Prosecutor’s Office (Project Disarm--federal prosecution of violent criminals), and our Hazardous Materials and SWAT training efforts. And we will allocate future revenues and savings to similar goals—particularly corrections and other core public safety needs. After hearing from many communities at our hearings, we also successfully lobbied for state legislation that 1) allows us to reduce the proposed 911 fee increase in a way that allows each jurisdiction to spend more of their dollars on core public safety; and 2) will allow some townships to access TIF dollars for public safety expenditures (including patrols) if they so desire.

Job and economic growth. We are continuing to invest, and are committed to improve, the County’s economic development efforts, because long-term, the only way we’re going to solve our budget problems is to grow our way out of them. We must compete for every job, every business, every development, and every resident we can—and we must be well-positioned to do that.

County workforce. No doubt, the most difficult part of this budget has been that some public servants will lose their jobs. While our goal has been to do everything possible (vacant positions, furloughs, other cuts in spending, etc.) to avoid actual layoffs, the sad reality is that too many people will be losing their jobs—and some already have. (We won't know the final number for some time). Of those affected, while I understand how little it helps, we deeply thank them for their service to the county, and our thoughts, prayers and best wishes go to them as they seek other opportunities. We also will be generating recall lists should opportunities arise for rehiring in the future.

Finally, we also know just how much those employees who remain are laboring under the current tight budgets of the County--and we understand their concern and frustration over what they have been asked to shoulder. As soon as the revenue picture improves, we hope to be able to improve this situation.

Broader public safety concerns. We also know that with some cuts, there remains real concern about public safety in this County, and we share those concerns. While the citizens have made it clear (twice) that they don’t want to pay more to operate our criminal justice system, we are working hard to find additional cuts, generate new revenues (without raising taxes) and take other steps to assure we have sufficient funding to provide top-notch public safety services in the long run. And through the Criminal Justice Commission, we will continue to work to assure we have the most cost-effective criminal justice system possible. And we are exploring process improvements and other reforms that will save money, improve the system, and improve public safety.

Potential savings and revenues. And finally, while we will not “bank” on the savings until they come in, we are exploring a number of other reforms, efficiencies, and revenue options that might help us in the coming years, such as:
- Requiring “pay to stay” in our jails, for those who can afford it, to offset the costs of jail stays
- Continuing to reduce our spending on everyday commodities such as office supplies, energy, consultants, travel, subscriptions—last year we saved more than $1.5M by applying spending caps to such items
- Using internet advertising for some of our websites—which has generated $100,000s for other governments
- Encouraging the state to more effectively collect revenue from private auto sales, which could lead to millions
- Finding an alternative way to fund the Hillcrest Youth Center (relieving the County taxpayer from this burden)
- Continuing to pursue managed competition and shared services opportunities, that could save millions of dollars in the long-term
- Continuing to lobby the state to reduce or reimburse more for mandates we can not afford—such as the public defender services that almost all other states cover.

Along with our economic growth efforts, these initiative all carry much promise to generate real revenues and savings in the coming year.

Finally, although he supported our Budget Consensus Motion, Commissioner DeWine also brought in, at the last minute, a motion to make additional cuts and to reallocate all the dollars we had committed to the Sheriff's budget.

I personally could not support this motion because: 1) it would have gutted our core economic development efforts, 2) would have inevitably led to layoffs of some Sheriff's deputies that our budget helped reinstate, and 3) it would have reallocated those dollars and committed them once again to a jail rental situation (with Campbell County, this time), without any forethought or deliberation. 

The County's seen this trick before!  The last thing we need to do is rush headlong and overcommit to renting jailspace elsewhere--that lesson has already been learned, at an incredibly high cost, with Butler County, and we're not going to do it again, particularly if doing so means we lay off our own deputies and end our own economic development efforts. (EMUs, Cambpell County, and other options do exist, and we will consider them over time--but we should only commit to them when we have identified real funds to support them.)

That's the 30,000 foot summary of a very challenging budget that we put to bed today.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reducing Crime and Recidivism: A Major Step Forward

A number of months ago, I wrote about the critical issue of reinstating Medicaid benefits as inmates finish their sentences and reenter the community.

Terminating, and not reinstating those benefits, has had the negative and costly effect of contributing to high recidivism and crime. The pattern is simple: with Medicaid terminated, those leaving our jails with mental illnesses or other medical needs (and that's a lot of people)--and therefore those who have substantial medical or treatment requirements--rarely have a way to pay for them. Without that basic medical care, and in some cases medicines to treat mental illnesses, they will often quickly reoffend, end up in jail again, and continue the revolving door of repeat crimes and taxpayer dollars wasted.

Through the Criminal Justice Commission we've created, we pointed out that a handful of other states had begun to solve this issue (by having Medicaid be "suspended" during incarceration, but automatically reinstated on release, as opposed to terminated outright), and that we should do the same. I sat down with Senator Bill Seitz to encourage him to take up this issue. And after some initial pushback by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, the Governor's office, after getting input from the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, began to administratively handle the issue.

Well, today, I have further GREAT news.

Thanks to Senator Seitz's leadership, a Bill (HB 215) passed both the Ohio House and Senate that, among other things, adds Ohio to the small number of reform states that now "suspend" Medicaid, rather than terminate it, during incarceration. This means if a person has not lost eligibility for some other reason, as they reenter the community, those Medicaid benefits are automatically reinstated. And this greatly helps reduce their likelihood to reoffend (particularly those whose criminal behavior is related to a mental illness, addiction or other conditions).

In short, this is a measure that will reduce crime and recidivism, reduce demand on jailspace, and save taxpayer dollars--and it's now the law of the state. And it could not have come at a better time (though it will take some time to implement).

Thanks is owed to the County Commissioner Association of Ohio and the Governor's Office for understanding the importance of this issue, and particularly to Sen. Seitz for pushing it through the Ohio legislature so rapidly.

Deepest Condolences

A friend of mine was at the play and witnessed the tragedy that took place at Crossroads, and it was truly a horrifying and traumatic event. My heart sunk to hear the news this morning that the young woman passed away.

My deepest condolences go out to the family for this loss, and to the entire Crossroads community at this incredibly difficult moment.

(Note--because it needs to be said: While we all have gotten (too) used to negative and nasty internet/online/blog discussion around politics and other community issues, it is really sad and shameful to see some of the incredibly petty and mean-spirited reactions to this tragedy at the Enquirer's comment board).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Politics and County Jobs: A Dangerous Mix, Part II

I've been a little surprised by several of the responses to my prior posting on this issue, so I decided to do a little more checking, and to clear up come confusion. Besides basic notions of common sense, ethics and good government, it turns out there are far more rules around this than some people might realize. It's best if we all understand them as soon as possible.

First, as most know, there are two types of positions -- classified and unclassified.

1. The rules regarding "unclassified positions": under state law, unclassified positions essentially serve at the pleasure of the appointing authority (which varies depending on the department), and there are generally far fewer restrictions on their political activity and involvement. It is ultimately up to the "appointing authority" to establish such rules.

Here at the Board of County Commissioners, there are clear rules regarding the top management team for which we are the appointing authority (administrator, deputy administrators, department heads under the administrator, etc.). Although they are unclassified positions, these employees can NOT engage in partisan political activities concerning the office of the Board of County Commissioners, including participation in reelection campaigns of incumbents. This includes refraining from financial participation, donation of time, attendance at fundraising events, distributing campaign literature, etc.

This makes for a very clean system--and one I strongly support. Professional administrators and managers working for the citizens do not feel any pressure to involve themselves in the politics of the elected officials, and do not base their professional/management decisions on the political prospects of those elected officials. It also means elected officials like myself make decisions about those we appoint based on their professional skills and successes (or failures), and not on how many yardsigns they planted or parades they marched in. Overall, that is a good thing for the orderly and professional operation of the County. I don't know what the ethical rules are regarding unclassified employees (and there are many such employees) under other "appointing authorities" in the County, but few if any will have such a rigorous rule. (I think they should for many unclassified management positions and other employees, but ultimately that's not up to me.)

2. The rules regarding "classified positions":

Both under state law and county rules, "classified positions" do have considerably more restrictions. While classified employees can express opinions, make voluntary financial contributions to candidates or organizations, attend political rallies that are open to the public, display political materials in their home or property, wear badges/buttons, they can NOT do a number of things, including (to name a few):
- serve in an elected or appointed office in a partisan political organization;
- "campaign[] by writing for publications, by distributing political material or by making speeches on behalf of a candidate for partisan elective office";
- solicit contributions for any party or candidate;
- or participate in partisan activities at the political polls.

3. There is also clear state law on what people in public office can NOT do as it relates to classified employees (and in some cases, any public employees):
- no person holding or seeking public office can promise, either indirectly or directly, to use their authority or influence to secure a classified position, or to affect a promotion or increase in salary in a classified position, as reward for political influence or service (O.R.C. 124.61)
- no officer or employee of the state or county shall appoint, promote, suspend, lay off, discharge or impact the rank or compensation of any employee in the classified service, or promise or threaten to do so, for giving, withholding, or refusing to support any party (O.R.C. 124.60)
- no person, for the benefit of a political party, campaign committee, etc. can coerce a contribution in consideration of, among other things, "preferring, or maintaining the status of [] any public employee with respect to compensation, duties, placement, location, promotion, or other material aspects of employment." (O.R.C. 2921.43 (C)(2) (Note: this applies to ALL employees).

BOTTOM LINE: In response to the casual suggestions by some commenters on my previous blog entry that personnel decisions should be made in part on partisan political activity, because (as one commenter said) "we would rather hire a known individual, who was willing to give of their time, money and effort", that's a precarious and dangerous road. Depending on 1) the employee's current status, 2) the position they are seeking, 3) the way in which the connection between their political activity and personnel decision is made or communicated, or 4) the activity in which they participate in (ie. distributing campaign literature as a classified employee), such an approach could very well violate both County policy and state law.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Unpaid Court Fines: Collections versus Arrests Saves $$

Given our tough budget and our jailspace crunch, any idea that can generate revenues while reducing demand on our jailspace is something we ought to look into.

Which is why I put forward a motion today that supports taking a model that has worked in Dayton and applying it here.

The concept is simple. Issuing arrest warrants for people with unpaid court fines (for low-level crimes), and incurring all the high costs of using the criminal justice system to collect on that fine (law enforcement pursuit, arrest, processing, potential jail time, court hearing, etc.), is an incredibly expensive way to collect those fines--especially if it happens thousands of times per year, which it does here. It also is not a good use of precious jailspace. Worse, at the end of the day, after all the laborious and costly process of bringing them through the criminal justice system, we often don't collect the unpaid fine anyway.

In Dayton, facing the same predicament we have here, the Municipal Court handed the process over to a collections agency. The Court issues a "collection warrant," rather than an "arrest warrant," for unpaid fines, and the collections agency does the rest. They have found that this saves untold dollars from the enforcement end, relieves pressure on jailspace, and keeps criminal justice resources dedicated to more serious issues. Even better, due to the expertise of the collection agency, the approach generates more revenue on the collection end--which doesn't just help the County budget, but ensures the defendant actually pays whatever they owe for their crimes.

Bottom line -- if the goal is to actually collect the fine, utilizing a "collections warrant" approach is generally a far better way to go.

The good news is that the Clerk of Courts is already looking into potential collections vendors (through an RFP process) for this concept. I'll keep you posted as they move forward.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Politics and County Jobs: A Dangerous Mix

This little item appeared on City Beat's blog yesterday. Needless to say, we should not be selecting critical positions in our criminal justice system, or anywhere else, based on how hard people worked on individual political campaigns, or how many yardsigns they planted.

We have so many good people who work for the County. But especially at this time of tight budgets and tough cuts, the impression that hiring and personnel decisions at the County are all about politics is incredibly damaging to the public's view and ultimate integrity of the County's work.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Budget Myth and Budget Fact #6: Balancing Budget "On the Backs of the Townships"

Budget Myth: At several public hearings and private meetings, some are suggesting that the budget is being balanced "on the backs of the Townships." (Some attribute this to the fact that the three commissioners used to be on Cincinnati City Council).

Budget Fact: This budget represents shared sacrifice by all. No one entity is being singled out. Unfortunately, if anything, the budget is actually being shouldered by the hardworking workforce of the County employees more than anyone else. And even though we are former Councilmembers, we have asked more of the City in recent years (budgetwise) than any other jurisdiction.


Explanation: Although we have not yet finalized the budget, the suggestion that this budget is being balanced "on the backs of the Townships" is misplaced. First, the basics of the budget show that most of the $40M in cuts is coming internally--from the employees of the County at all levels. And to the extent those cuts impact services, those services have a Countywide impact.

One aspect of the Administrator's proposed budget indeed involves the townships, in that he would ask the three largest Townships to pay for the patrols that they directly receive, and that they have traditionally received without having to reimburse the county. (They already pay for other patrol services provided by the Sheriff). Since the Administrator made that proposal, many questions have been raised about how to best pay for this arrangement, but this is an area that should and will ultimately be left up to the Sheriff to decide: how to best and most effectively patrol the County within his statutory authority, and within a limited budget. But even under the administrator's proposal, the budgetary impact of this is about 15% of the total cuts being discussed.

But before Township residents and leaders think that even this part of the administrator's proposal is somehow singling them out, we have actually spent the past two years having the very same conversation about other services we have traditionally provided (without reimbursement) . . . to the City of Cincinnati (yes, our former jurisdiction).

- in early 2008, for example, we began billing the City of Cincinnati for the cost of jail bed days used for citizens who violated City ordinances. For some reason, this had not been done since 2001 (even though it was required by contract). The City now pays the County $10,000s per month for this cost.

- later in 2008, I also learned that Ohio law requires that we be reimbursed for any public defender services we provide to citizens whose crimes involve the violation of the City's ordinances. Counter to the law, the public defender had not been asking for such reimbursements. Well, now we do (more accurately, as soon as we did, the City chose to do these services themselves going forward). Either way, we just relieved potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawyer time from our public defender caseload.

So the concept of allocating cost to those who benefit from a service is not a new one at all, and was first applied to the City. While they at first weren't happy, they ultimately saw that our requests had merit.

Also, as we finalize this budget, we are also trying to help our Townships by:

- lobbying hard to make sure the State maintains its 911 wireless fee, which directly benefits all jurisdictions (including Townships), by reducing the local cost of running our regional communication center. This would allow each jurisdiction to put more money into local policing efforts.

- supporting legislation, requested by Anderson Township, that would allow Anderson, Green and Delhi Townships to use funds in their Tax Increment Finance Districts for more than just capital expenditures, including paying for Sheriff's patrols if they so choose.

Overall, in a tough time, we're trying to be fair to all taxpayers, residents and government partners. We are no doubt asking a little more from our partners in government, but usually because the law and fairness (or both), require it.

Even then, the sad truth is that no one is shouldering this budget and difficult economy nearly as much as our own County workforce.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hearings Done: What Next?

Last night, we held the third of our three public budget hearings, and like the others, it was an informative, emotional and difficult night. Thanks for all those who attended and spoke.

Where do we go from here? All three commissioners put forward their proposals as to how to get through this, and though there are differences, we all agreed on some basics. Over the next week, we will work to gain a consensus on a final budget.

For a link to all three of our motions, go to: http://www.hamiltoncountyohio.gov/administrator/bsi/budget.asp

For a good summary of the hearing, go to: http://www.wcpo.com/content/specials/2008/economy2008/story/Commissioners-Unveil-Budget-Ideas/ReqC7K0fF0a9bZlViM1fvw.cspx

As we make this decision, and weigh different ideas, I will be operating from and balancing the following principles:

- we must do what we can to reduce the impact of cuts on public safety, and other direct and critical services

- in making cuts and asking for steps such as furloughs, we must lead from the top

- if reforms/efficiencies are available that will minimize the need to cut from direct services, or minimize job cuts, we must pursue such reforms

- if there are responsible options that can reduce the number of (and high cost of) layoffs, we should pursue or encourage them

- we must learn from prior majorities' past mistakes, and not cut off our ability to grow our economy and revenues long-term, or we'll only face a worse predicament every year

- we must learn from prior majorities' mistakes, and not irresponsibly spend money we don't have

- we must learn from prior majorities' mistakes, and not make unrealistic assumptions about revenues or savings from our proposed cuts that allow us to get through the next week without making tough decisions but will have us back here in four months because our budget was based on phantom numbers

- we must learn from prior majorities' mistakes, and not drain the reserve fund on recurring, operating costs

- we must follow our legal mandates, and work within the statutory authority we are given

- we must hold the line on taxes at this difficult economic time, and we must learn from past majorities' mistakes and not spend money on an assumption that a future tax increase will pay for current spending

All these principles are important guideposts as we get through this tough time.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Thanks to All County Departments

Yesterday, we wrapped up our third Monday of working sessions with County department leaders as we together deliberate on the 2009 budget.

Despite how challenging this process is thanks to the bleak revenue picture and economy, the department heads and elected officials of the County have largely responded INCREDIBLY to this difficult budget (just as they did mid-year to implement the 6% across-the-board cuts). We are all working through these tough cuts together, and each department is facing up to the reality of this tough time.

We're not quite there yet, and there will no doubt be some tough decisions, but the overall tone of the dialogue has been serious, sincere and apolitical. Thanks to all those who are working together to get this tough job done.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Budget Myth and Budget Fact #5: The Banks

The Myth: If only the County were to cease the Banks Riverfront project, it could put those dollars into its general fund to avoid the cuts that are being discussed.

The Facts: For a whole host of reasons, the dollars being invested on the Banks can not be applied to County's general fund problem. So even if the County announced the cessation of the Banks Project tomorrow, it would not generate a nickel to help the County's general fund deficit.

The primary sources for the initial phase of the Banks development are as follows: federal and state grants specifically earmarked for the Banks, Tax Increment Financing funds (allowable only downtown or on the Banks), the Developer Contribution, the City of Cincinnati contribution, a State Infrastructure Bank loan, an Urban redevelopment loan, and parking revenue (which are limited by bond covenants for riverfront development obligations). In addition, to the extent County staff and preparatory work is being done on the Banks, it is paid for from the separate Stadium fund--not the County's general fund. (And the current county commission has reduced that amount as well in recent years).

The one thing all these sources have in common is that none can legally or appropriately be spent on general operating costs of the County.

Bigger picture, the Banks is part of the solution to the budget problems--which is being driven largely by revenue paralysis. If we grow our economy through development such as the Banks, new housing, growing tourism, developments such as we're seeing in Kenwood, etc., then we grow our way out of the problem.

On the other hand, if we shut down those growth opportunities simply to pay the costs of our basic operations, we trigger a downward economic spiral with no end in sight.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Three Must Reads

Amid the budget and other challenges we're dealing with, I've managed to get through three must-read books.

First, a short book, Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell (who wrote the Tipping Point), is a fascinating look at what makes for success (what makes someone an "outlier" from the rest). It's not your rehashed list of the same leadership traits many books talk about, but instead, an analysis of what systemic, societal and cultural factors lead to success (in education, in business, in society). The book then uses these lessons to explore how certain systemic reforms (like a longer school day and shorter summer breaks, or giving young people an opportunity to begin practicing a skill at a young age) assure better opportunities for success across the board. A quick but compelling read.

Second, two other books go hand in hand. Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded, and Van Jones's The Green Collar Economy, both portray the enormous challenge, and enormous opportunity, we face in our current energy and environmental crisis. If we're smart, we can turn the largest modern-day challenge we face into the greatest job-creating engine of the coming decades--all while improving the global environment and global security. As Friedman says, the amount of work can seem overwhelming, but "we have just enough time if we START RIGHT NOW." And as Jones points out, doing this thoughtfully could also create a unique wave of opportunity in our long struggling urban areas--particularly with today's young people.

On reading the latter two books, I'm thrilled that our County Climate Initative and other efforts are underway. They are critical initiatives at a critical time.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Budget Myth and Budget Fact #4: Public Safety

Lately, some who have criticized the Administrator's proposed budget have questioned this commission majority's commitment to public safety.

The Myth: because the Administrator's proposed budget includes cuts to public safety, the commissioner's priority is not sufficiently on public safety.

The Facts:

A close look at the basics of the County's budget, and the dire revenue picture, makes clear that (unfortunately) it's impossible to balance this budget without some budgetary impact to public safety and criminal justice services (without raising taxes, at least).

1) Together, the judicial (35.4%) and public safety (33.8%) functions of the county make up 69.2% of the county's general fund budget.

2) That leaves another 25% to be split among all of the following departments--auditor, recorder, treasurer, board of elections, commission/administration, engineer, public works, the building/planning department, as well as the facilities and human resources departments that serve many departments. Most of these functions are either mandated by law, or provide the necessary support for public safety and other functions (ie. facilities for jails, courts), or both.

3) 4% of the budget is for debt service.

4) About 0.5% of the general fund budget is dedicated to economic development efforts. This is far less than other peer counties in Ohio.

While the budget proposal cuts significantly into the non-safety/non-court functions (the 25%)--and our past two unanimous budgets have done so time and again--the magnitude of the cuts required ($40m) does not realistically allow for any budget (again, without a tax increase) that holds public safety harmless. Public safety is simply the overwhelming portion of the total budget.

This is particularly true when some areas--like the cost of energy, salaries in collective bargaining agreements, and debt payments--either can't be cut, or actually are increasing. And when the reserve fund that otherwise might have allowed us to get through this was squandered on 1) the Butler County jail rental deal orchestrated by Phil Heimlich and 2) the misdeeds of the prior coroner, and resulting lawsuits.

Two final points:

First, as we deliberate on this budget, we are still doing everything we can to minimize the impact on public safety. Hopefully a combination of options will allow us to make progress.

Second, the clearest indication that our priority IS public safety is reflected in our promotion of Issue 27 last year. If that plan had been implemented, the fact is that public safety (both corrections and patrols) would have essentially been held harmless in this budget.

As one speaker said at last night's hearing, we're still waiting to see the plan from those critics of Issue 27 who falsely promised the voters that we could 1) continue patrolling Over the Rhine, 2) continue renting jailspace in Butler County, 3) provide and pay for sufficient jailspace long-term, including replacing Queensgate, AND 4) pay for appropriate reforms/treatment programs--all without any new resources.

While those promises sounded great at the time, something tells me that we will never see that plan--so we'll do all we can to make the best of a bad situation.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

My Travel: Not One Dime in Public $$$

A small item on the Enquirer blog today mentioned that I had recently been named as an Aspen/Rodel fellow. It's something that a handful of elected officials (half Democrat/half Republican) across the country are selected for every year, and I was privileged to have been so recognized. Ohio Speaker of the House John Husted, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, and (this year) Ohio House representative Shannon Jones have all been similarly recognized.

To take part, there are several retreats where the group comes together (mostly on three-day weekends), and one Enquirer reader wondered out loud if I would be using taxpayer dollars to pay for those trips/stays.

As with all other travel I have ever done as a Commissioner, the answer is most certainly NOT. Even when I am on the road for business as a commissioner, my policy is never to use one dime of taxpayer money to pay for things such as travel, hotel stays, meals, etc., involved.

Just wanted to set the record straight.

Here's the story: http://news.cincinnati.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=blog02&plckController=Blog&plckScript=blogScript&plckElementId=blogDest&plckBlogPage=BlogViewPost&plckPostId=Blog%3aec38bb2b-982e-46ba-819a-da01a547e8eaPost%3a2c0a9d61-68e3-47cb-90ba-ba104e240665&sid=sitelife.cincinnati.com

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Budget Myth and Budget Fact #3: The Hotel/Bed Tax

One of the most counterproductive myths about our budget--and this one has been circulated time and again--is that we as a County can and should spend dollars from our hotel/motel tax (paid by those who visit and stay in our County's hotels) on basic county operations.

The Myth: It is suggested that if only we didn't spend the proceeds from the hotel/motel tax on the convention center, or on marketing our region for tourism, we could/should spend this money paying for the basic services in our general fund.

The Facts: Three responses:

1) The Law. Ohio law is clear that this money must be spent for the kind of convention center projects, and/or the kind of marketing activity, for which it is now being allocated. To divert it to the general fund would be inappropriate and a violation of state law. Some suggest the law be changed--but we don't control that, we shouldn't budget based on what is today an illegal expenditure, and most importantly, it is plain as day that the state legislature will never amend it in this way, for many reasons.

2) The Basic Agreement. In this case, the hotel tax was raised a number of years ago to pay specifically for the convention center project. This was at the consent of the local hotel industry (who are the ones most sensitive to that tax rate), because they believed it was an important project for their industry (and they've turned out to be right). Excess funds from the increase (beyond the costs of the convention center itself) are largely spent on marketing the new center, and the entire region's tourism industry, again to bolster tourism and the number of hotel stays. Again, this makes sense to the hotels because it is supporting the promotion of the industry.

Given the basic agreement that the hotel tax increase was acceptable because the proceeds would be invested back into growing the industry voluntarily shouldering that tax, to divert the proceeds down the road to completely unrelated general County expenditures would be one more broken promise by County government. (Would be just like breaking the County's commitment on the PTR, which we refuse to do).

3) The Economics. Finally, this is all about economic growth. As I've written about over and over again on this blog, the only way we're going to get out of this budget mess is to grow our way out. To compete in this highly competitive world. To bring new dollars here. Dollars from outside our region, spent here in the County. Without that, we simply dwindle away, cutting more as revenues dry up.

Here, we have a resource that is dedicated to promoting that badly needed growth--and, guess what, it's working, with record-setting growth in our tourism industry. This is (not coincidentally) all happening just as we began investing this money wisely, and even as a recession has been occuring in every other aspect of the economy. And while most of the country is seeing fewer tourists and visitors, we're seeing record high numbers:(http://cincypeptalk.blogspot.com/2008/11/new-record-set-for-tourism.html)

It's common sense. Dedicating this money to growth leads to more growth. The investment more than pays for itself and then some, replenishing the fund with even more money year after year. And it's even happening in 2008 amid all the other dismal economic news. No doubt, the thousands of visits and millions spent locally by these visitors also keep our sales tax from falling even further in this tough economic time.

To divert this money to basic county operations would freeze this growth. Rather than promoting, and growing, ourselves, which leads to an ever growing revenue stream in, we'd shut down. The fund would quickly dwindle, and we'd have yet another negative economic trend to contend with. And whatever money we began diverting to general operations would diminish year after year.

This type of economic downward spiral is the last thing we should do.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Budget Myth and Fact #2: Cuts To JFS

One of the toughest areas of our budget involves our Department of Jobs and Family Services. I am receiving many comments and emails from affected employees and concerned citizens, and I see that there is also discussion on other blogs and in public meetings about these cuts, where they are coming from, why they are happening now (ie., before other departments in the county), etc. All good questions, and please keep them coming.

It doesn't make the job any easier, but the most important fact related to all this is that the cuts to these services come directly from the state, and there is little that County JFS can do but implement them as best they can, and do all they can to minimize the impact on services and County employees. But sadly, given the drastic nature of the cuts being passed down, avoiding layoffs is simply impossible.

(Today's Enquirer provided a very sobering story about the state's budget: http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20081202/NEWS0108/812020316/1169/NEWS)

Here are the basic facts as it relates to JFS:

1. JFS funding comes almost entirely from the state and federal governments (the County provides $1 million out of the more than $1.37 billion JFS receives from all sources).

2. Most important, in 2008, the state allocated about $95 million for JFS administrative services, which is what pays for the basic operation of the many programs overseen by JFS, including employee positions and salaries. That number was $115M in 2007.

3. As part of its drastic budget shortfall, the State required a 5% reduction for Hamilton County JFS this fall, resulting in a $2.6 million cut in these administrative services. Another 10-11% cut is projected in a few months. The 2009 JFS Administrative Services budget will therefore be about $86.9M. (One of the reasons that the cuts began right away is because JFS works within the state's 2009 fiscal year budget, which began in July 2008).

4. Overall, Hamilton County expects to see that decrease again in 2010 ($74.9M) and 2011 ($72.8M). Overall, this is a 40% total cut over a five-year period. Again, all of these cuts are coming from the state--the County has no control over them whatsoever.

To deal with these cuts, JFS has a) made cuts to existing contracts by millions of dollars; b) instituted a hiring freeze; c) reducing available overtime; and other measures.

But again, and unfortunately, none of these measures is sufficient to avoid the layoffs that have begun. As in the other areas where we're having to make cuts, it is an incredibly difficult situation.

Budget Myth and Budget Fact #1: The Commissioner/Administration Budget

This budget cycle is painfully difficult, as we all know.

Unfortunately, it gets even more difficult when myths and claims are made, or rumored, or disseminated, that are not true, and when these myths and falsities create even more misunderstanding and confusion about what is happening. But that's what politics has become, unfortunately.

I'm going to use this blog in the coming weeks to address the different myths that make their way around the County, so we can all be on the same page about the real facts and figures we have to grapple with.

Myth #1: That the County Commission/Administration ("6th Floor") are not sharing the sacrifice in the budget cuts.

Fact: We have taken a hacksaw to the bloated Commission/Administration budget we inherited from the Heimlich/DeWine majority in 2006, and are doing so again in the 2009 budget.

Background: When I got to the Commission in January 2007, and the majority switched, we inherited a Commissioner/Administration ("6th Floor") budget that could fairly be described as top heavy. In addition to their own aides and the Administrator, Commissioners Heimlich and DeWine had:
- directly hired a Deputy County Administrator (Ron Roberts), who made $170,000 per year (2nd highest salary only to the Administrator, and who answered directly to the Commissioners)
- hired a Construction Executive for the original Heimlich/DeWine jail project, who made $150,000 per year (3rd highest salary under general fund)
- they had a generously staffed office of Budget and Strategic Initiatives, and far more administrative staff on the 6th floor
- they had a full-time "policy analyst" who had previously been a Heimlich aide. He directly served the commissioners (those in the majority, that is).

All these positions interacted as one unit, in large part because many of these hires came directly from the commissioners themselves, or from their own offices.

At that time, the Commissioner's and Administration's 6th Floor budget also included very generous spending on miscellaneous payments, miscellaneous contracts, and equipment.

What's happened since January 2007?

The new majority, and the administration, have taken a hacksaw to the 6th floor budget we inherited:
- we eliminated the $170,000 Deputy Administrator position (who directly served the commissioners)
- we eliminated the $150,000 Construction Executive (who served both the commissioners and Administrator)
- we eliminated the policy analyst (who directly served the commissioners)

By the time we are through with our 2009 budget, we also will have:
- eliminated an Assistant County Administrator position (another of the top paid positions in the County)
- eliminated two budget analysts
- eliminated the MSD comptroller position
- eliminated a grants coordinator
- eliminated a support staff and other administrative services positions
- eliminated several purchasing positions
- significantly reduced outside grants, payments and contracts that the Commissioners/Administration previously doled out
- frozen all top wages, and given back salary increases that were mandated by state law

What are the numbers?
- from 2005 through 2009, the 6th floor budget has been cut by 45% (from $5.19M in 2005, to 2.8M in 2009); the budget will go down 36% in 2009 alone
- from 2006 through 2008, salaries were cut by 11% (and will be more in the 2009 budget)
- the 2nd, 3rd and 5th highest paid positions at the County (which were also under the commissioners) as of 2006, will no longer exist in January 2009
- equipment spending, 2006-2008, was cut by 95%
- miscellaneous payments, 2005-2008, cut by by 85%
- miscellaenous contracts, 2006-2008, cut by 35%

Bottom line: there are many empty offices on the 6th floor that had previously been filled by the Heimlich/DeWine administration. Many of these positions had been directly hired by commissioners, and directly served the commissioners. Those positions eliminated were among the highest paid staff in the County. And under this budget, there will be even more empty offices, and lower spending, in 2009.

It's Time To License Your Dog (And Get Some Free Pet Supplies)

This story explains it well, but licensing your dog is the law in Ohio--and also happens to be the best way to assure your dog's safe return if he or she runs off:

http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20081201/NEWS01/812010323/0/NEWS02

Dec. 1 (today) is the first day to license your dog.

But this year, in order to increase the abysmal rate of people who actually have their dog license, the SPCA has partnered with Iams, who will provide free pet supplies to every pet owner who gets their license. The free supplies are valued at far more than the $13 license fee, so be sure to take advantage of this. We are also rolling out a much more aggressive marketing campaign, working with vets, retail stores, and even Cincinnati Waterworks (through their mailings), to get the word out.

As a budget matter, every person who legally licenses their dog (and only about 30 to 40% do), means cuts we don't have to make to our general fund budget. Because of the low percentage, we end up having to subsidize the dog warden services from our general fund by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Also, we decided to keep the license fee at $13, one of the lowest around, on the hope that more people would buy them instead.

So if you own a dog in Hamilton County, please purchase the license: it's a win-win-win-win. It's good for your dog's safe return. You get a greater value in Iam's merchandise than the cost of the license. It's the law (so you won't be fined later). And it helps our County's budget.

For more information on how to get your dog license and take advantage of the Iams offer, go to: http://www.spcacincinnati.org/pages/default2.asp?active_page_id=168.

UPDATE: Here's a radio interview I did on the issue: http://www.700wlw.com/cc-common/podcast/single_podcast.html?podcast=scott_sloan.xml.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Our Hearts Go Out To Mumbai Victims

In too many ways, 2008 has been a historically difficult year--a reality check on the growing challenges we face in this new century.

And the events that we all saw unfold in Mumbai over the past five days--with stories of cruelty, indisciminate murder, and tragedy playing out on the world stage--only make that reality check more painfully clear.

Our hearts and prayers go out to the attacks' victims, who spanned all nationalities, religions and income levels.

And may our hearts and heads come together in this new year, under our new leadership, to start moving things in a far better direction than they appear today.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Great Seasons, Elder, Anderson and UC

Although both fell a little short at the end, congratulations to Elder and Anderson for outstanding football seasons. Both schools did our area proud as they marched through the state playoffs to the finals.

And of course, thanks and congratulations to Brian Kelly and the Bearcats for putting us on the national college football map. And from Reading High School to Colerain, it's so great to see so many home-grown players leading the way.

I catch as much football as I can, and was thrilled to see four UC and Elder wins in person this year.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

As of today, the PepTalk blog has raised $6,014.99 for the FreeStore! Thanks to all who have given so generously.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Productive Meeting: Yes to PTR, Yes to NSP

At today's Commission meeting, the Commissioners brought closure to some important issues I've blogged about lately:

1) we unanimously approved the property tax rebate ("PTR") that was part of the Stadium Vote of 1996. As Commissioner Portune stated, we must keep promises made to the voters--and this one was certainly made clearly. And as I added, once a promise is made, and the voters vote, it becomes a clear mandate for us to carry out. As much as we need dollars in our tough budget, to have not abided by this mandate, and to use PTR funds to bail out our general fund problems, would be a deeply illegitimate action.

http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20081127/NEWS0108/811270415/1169/NEWS

2) we unanimously approved the $8 million Neighborhood Stabilization Program plan we have worked so hard to put together over the past month. This will mean real investment, hopefully in early-mid 2009, throughout the County. Here's a link to the program summary: http://www.hamiltoncountyohio.gov/commdev/v2/NSPOutline.pdf

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Touring Our Community with Sen. Voinovich

Today, I joined Mayor Mallory, Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding and numerous other community leaders in welcoming Senator George Voinoich to the City and County, taking a tour of some of the communities facing the housing crisis head on, and explaining how we plan to invest the $8 million the County recently received from the federal government to battle foreclosures and blight.

For the Channel 9 story, go to: http://www.wcpo.com/content/specials/2008/economy2008/story.aspx?content_id=c3231b2f-50a9-4ed4-a924-1dbec0d3eeb8.

Overall, it was an incredibly productive morning. After walking some of the streets of Price Hill and observing some of the most troubled properties, along with some that have been rehabilitated by Price Hill Will, we hosted a community roundtable in Northside. There, we gave the Senator input on how the federal housing bill that led to the dollars might be amended to make the program more useful and workable at the neighborhood level.

I'm glad to say that Senator Voinovich reacted very favorably to the County's approach to spending the dollars, which we will approve at tomorrow's Commission meeting, and then submit to the federal government by December 1.

He also appeared very impressed by the County/City partnership on foreclosure prevention counseling, which has prevented more than 700 foreclosures since early 2007. We underscored the priority of such counseling efforts, and urged him to consider ways to allow more federal dollars to be invested in counseling.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Economic Crisis Survey: Results

Very sobering results from my survey last month on the state of the economy, and how it's affecting our decisions. But also some very good ideas on how to kick-start things.

Here are the basic results:

1. People are seeing and feeling the impact directly: Of those surveyed, 66% know someone who has lost his/her job, 37% know someone who has lost their home to foreclosure, and 69% said their employer has been negatively impact by the economy. 54% say the current state of affairs will reduce their holiday shopping "some," and 35% say they will reduce shopping "very much."

2. Respondents are pessimistic about the prospects of recovery before late 2009. Only 6.4% believe the economy will recover in late 2008, and only 19.1% believe it will stabilize and begin to recover in early-mid 2009. 42.6% believe the economy will slump for most of 2009, and that recovery will begin by the end of 2009. And 34% believe it will slump the entire year. On the positive side, 70% believe the election of a new President will help improve things.

3. People were mixed on the bailout of Wall St., but leaned against it overall. 35% supported it to some degree; 18.% were neutral; and 46% were opposed to some degree. (Interesting results, given that the local Member of Congress who voted against the bailout lost, and the one who supported it won).

4. There was much blame to go around on who was responsible for the mess, but the most oft-blamed were 1) The Bush Administration (73% selected as playing a significant role); 2) subprime lenders (73%); Wall St. (69%); deregulation practices (69%); individual consumers/homebuyers (61.8%).

Of the policy options and solutions floated:

- At the national level, people are most supportive of the following solutions: 1) energy independence plan; 2) health care reform; 3) reduced government spending; and 4) better oversight/regulation of Wall St.

- At the County level, people are most supportive of the following solutions: 1) efforts to attract more jobs/businesses to area; 2) creating an innovation economy; 3) make the region more business friendly; and 4) investment in infrastructure.

Thanks for your input. This was very valuable feedback.

PepTalk Blog Vaults into FreeStore Lead!

While I promised not to trash talk, thanks to an incredibly generous donation earlier today ($5,000!!!), I am comfortable claiming that I have stormed into the lead of the Battle of the Blogs to help the FreeStore and the families it serves. My total is now about $5,300.

Thanks to all those who have given (through any blog), but particularly the incredibly generous donor(s) who gave this morning.

UPDATE: A story on Channel 5 this morning reported that 7,661 people stood in the cold and rain for emergency food at the FreeStore yesterday--a record, and a 19% increase over 2007: http://www.wlwt.com/news/18052859/detail.html?treets=cin&tml=cin_7am&ts=T&tmi=cin_7am_-1_06000211252008

Again, to give to the Free Store Foodbank, and take part in the Battle of the Blogs, do the following:

1) Go to the virtual store, and make your purchases: (takes 3 minutes)http://vad.aidmatrix.org/vadxml.cfm?driveid=3180

2) Comment below, however you wish, on the amount you gave (I won't list names, but will keep track of the tally).

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Keeping Promises, part II

Good story today outlining the Property Tax Rebate, its history, and why all three commissioners are so steadfast in respecting the will of the voters in 1996. Hopefully this will dramatically reduce the number of times people suggest we dip into the PTR to solve general fund budget problems:

http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20081123/NEWS0108/811230355/1169/NEWS

Saturday, November 22, 2008

It's On!! Blog Battle to Help FreeStore Heats Up!

It's on! The Battle of the Blogs to help the Freestore Foodbank is really heating up.

Since it was kicked off, we now have in the competition:

1. Cincinnati City Beat: http://www.citybeat.com/cincinnati/blog-233-battle-of-the-blogs-game-on_.html

2. The Cincinnati Blog: http://cincinnati.blogspot.com/2008/11/great-way-to-give-thanks.html

3. The Cincinnati Beacon: (who even dared to mock the amount I personally donated): http://www.cincinnatibeacon.com/index.php/contents/comments/david_pepper_joins_battle_of_the_blogs_for_the_freestore_foodbank/#comments

4. The Blog of County Republican Chairman Alex Triantafilou: (who went so far as to assert that conservatives are more charitable to fire up his crew): http://hcrp.blogspot.com/2008/11/battle-of-blogs-for-good-cause.html

These others are engaging in some serious trash talking. As the newest blog, I'm not going there. I just need your help--and in all seriousness, so do the thousands of families who the FreeStore will serve. Thanks to those who have already given through my site (about $260 so far), but we can do a lot better than that.

Once again, it's so easy to give:

1) Go to the virtual store, and make your purchases: (takes 3 minutes)http://vad.aidmatrix.org/vadxml.cfm?driveid=3180

2) Comment below, however you wish, on the amount you gave, so I have a fighting chance of winning this competition against some much more veteran blogs than mine. (I won't list names, but will keep track of the tally).

Hearing #1: Thanks To Those Who Spoke, and Who Serve

While a new proposal on reforming County government got all the attention in the paper, the real story at our public hearing was the heartfelt and passionate testimony by so many fine public servants. For that reason alone, I wish all our citizens could see these hearings in person.

I say this particularly because too often, I see comments online and blogs, and sometimes in person, that treat our public employees--whether they be our JFS workers or our Sheriff's deputies--incredibly harshly. Citizens' frustration with government (often understandable) too often spills over into unfair name-calling and insults of our public employees. Are they all perfect? Of course not--as headlines the last couple days have unfortunately made clear in two specific cases. But if citizens saw the vast majority of our public servants at work every day, or even saw them speak at our public hearings, I think they'd change their tune.

Wednesday, we had corrections officers speak passionately about their dedication to keeping the public safe. We heard from a deputy who'd worked his way through a Master's program while patrolling our neighborhoods to keep them safe, and now volunteers to get other young people involved in public service. And we had person after person speak with pride and passion about the work they do every day for the citizens of this County.

For an account of some of the testimony, go here, and skip the first few paragraphs: http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20081120/NEWS0108/811200317/1169/NEWS

As for the cuts on the table, they lamented not just the impact these proposed cuts would have on them personally, but on the service and safety they work so hard to provide. With so much on the line, they were still thinking well beyond themselves.

None of this makes our ultimate decisions easier--indeed, it makes it harder. Real lives are affected by this budget, both in who receives County services, and who delivers them.

As I said at the hearing, while we must balance our budget responsibly, we will continue to look for any solutions that minimize the impact of our slumping economy on the services we provide, particularly as they affect safety. And whether you're an employee or a citizen, this is the time to bring forward any cost-savings and efficiency ideas that would avert more direct cuts to service.

For the remaining hearings, we're all ears.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Exciting New Retail in the County

Because our largest revenue source is the sales tax, the County clearly has a major interest in exciting new retail within our boundaries. Which is one of the many reasons why tomorrow's opening of Crate & Barrel, and this week's opening of the new Kroger Fresh Fare, are such good news. (The Port Authority has played a supportive role in this project).

When completed, the broader project, known as Kenwood Town Place, will comprise almost 600,000 square feet of mixed use retail and office, with some other marquis names on their way.

For more information, go to: http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20081119/BIZ01/311190008

For the link to the development site and plans, go to: http://www.bearcreekcapital.com/pROPERTIES/?Property=29.

I recently spoke at the Hamilton County Development Corporation's annual lunch, and was glad to be part of the presentation awarding this development as the 2008 Economic Development Project of the Year.

Battle of the Blogs: Help Put Food on Someone's Table

Unfortunately, times are tough at the very time that we are approaching Thanksgiving and the Holidays. At both County agencies and local nonprofits that serve those in need, lines have grown long of people needing help.

Which is why for those who can, now is a great time to give. A cross-section of bloggers is encouraging people to give to the FreeStore/Foodbank, one of our great local organizations, which has set up a virtual store at which you can buy food for those in need. And I agreed to throw my hat in the ring for this good cause.

For those willing to give even a little, it's very easy. I myself just purchased a bag of food for a family of four, and topped it off with green beans, potatoes and apples.

To participate in this Battle of the Blogs to help the FreeStore, take two steps:

1) Go to the virtual store, and make your purchases: (takes 3 minutes)http://vad.aidmatrix.org/vadxml.cfm?driveid=3180

2) Comment below, however you wish, on the amount you gave, so I have a fighting chance of winning this competition against some much more veteran blogs than mine. (I won't list names, but will keep track of the tally).

Thanks to all who can step up and help this important cause. With your and others' help, the FreeStore will feed over 16,000 families over the Holiday season. For more information, go to: http://www.freestorefoodbank.org/.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fulfilling the PTR Promise: Some Things Are Simple

UPDATE: The vote reauthorizing the Property Tax Rebate is on the agenda for next week's Commission meeting.

Am I missing something, or is the issue of the County's Property Tax Rebate (which was part of the 1996 Stadium Vote) a simple and clearcut one?

Let me explain.

A decade ago, as part of the vote on whether to raise the sales tax 1/2 cent to pay for the new stadiums, the citizens were made a clear promise: that 30% of the receipts from the new sales tax would be returned to them through a property tax rebate (the "PTR").

This was a clear commitment made prior to the citizens' vote.

And with that commitment publicly made, and about 60% voting yes, the citizens indeed authorized taxing themselves an additional 1/2 cent to pay for the stadiums/riverfront, and to pay for the PTR that would be returned to them. Just like the promise was clear, the citizens' mandate was equally clear.

Given this history, I remain stunned whenever I hear anyone suggest, or casually float, (no current commissioners suggest this, by the way) that one potential "option" to solve our budget woes, or any other financial challenge we face, is to "use" the approximate $19M in PTR dollars, in whole or in part, for other purposes besides the promised rebate.

Far beyond a debate over tax policy (and we're striving to keep taxes as low as possible), this is a much more fundamental issue of basic governance, and adhering to the clear consent of the governed. In that light, I consider any move to divert dollars from the PTR to be a deeply illegimate act. It lacks fundamental integrity. And it's simply not an option.

As elected officials, we represent the citizens. In most areas, their voting us into office gives us authority and discretion to make decisions on their behalf, and we make those decisions as best we can (even when they're not popular). The citizens return us or remove us from office on their overall assessment of those decisions.

But in other areas, citizens make a decision, and make their will clear, directly through the ballot box. When that has occurred, as their elected representatives, we have no discretion or authority whatsoever but to implement and adhere to their decision faithfully. This is particularly true when citizens have consented to put more of their dollars into government for a specific purpose.

The PTR is one of those areas. In 1996, the citizens voted, and the implication of their vote was clear: 30% of the funds they were voluntarily agreeing to forego up would return to them. It was a deal offered by County leadership, and accepted by the citizens, and without this "deal," there would be no new tax funds at all--for the stadiums, for the PTR, for anything.

Under this vote, the elected representatives at the County have been given a simple, limited mandate: 30% of the new dollars are simply to pass through the county, and go right back out the door as the PTR. We may collect them, but simply because they pass through temporarily, these dollars are not for the County to spend or divert in any way but as a rebate for homeowners. That is the only authority we have. Case closed.

I wasn't in office in 1996. I didn't put together the stadium deal, and most of the rest of those around now weren't part of it either (although we're all living with its many consequences). But the citizens spoke. And until and unless citizens tell us otherwise, our marching orders on this issue are very simple.

To violate those orders now would fundamentally breach our mandate at a time when citizens already have lost so much faith in government.

Not To Dwell, But . . .

The New York Times wrote a comprehensive story yesterday on the extent state governments across this country, led by Democrat and Republican Governors alike, are facing the same dire financial straits as we are.

"The plunging revenues — the result of an unusual assemblage of personal, sales, capital gains and corporate taxes falling significantly — have poked holes in budgets that are just weeks and months old and that came about only after difficult legislative sessions." Sounds familiar.

For the whole story, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/17/us/17fiscal.html?_r=1&em.

For a national map of the states' conditions: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2008/11/17/us/20081117_budget_graphic.html

Unfortunately, part of the problem here is that as Ohio grapples with its own deficit, we often pay the price. The recent cuts, and layoffs, in our Job and Family Services Department are a direct state cut. And our Public Defender Service, which is a mandated service, is supposed to be reimbursed by the state at a 50% rate--but is reimbursed at less than half that amount, costing us millions of dollars. Ohio's cuts may end up impacting us in all sorts of other ways as well.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Investing Big Dollars in our Communities: Update

Last month, I announced the great news that Hamilton County had received almost $8 million from the federal government to invest in the County neigborhoods (Cincinnati received its own allocation) hardest hit by foreclosure: http://cincypeptalk.blogspot.com/2008/10/positive-developments-in-tough-time.html.

After a month of hard work and gathering community input, our draft program is shaping up nicely. We will submit it to the federal government for approval on December 1.

What will this program mean? Millions of dollars invested to eliminate and demolish blighted properties in our communities, redevelop and upgrade old, foreclosed housing stock, as well as the potential for new greenspace, new commercial development, and even new jobs.

And the philosophy of our approach is that the 15 targeted communities (selected based on the foreclosure criteria provided by HUD) determine and propose what is best for them, as opposed to the County dictating how they spend the money from above. Other non-targeted communities will still have a chance to access funding for properties that meet the eligibility criteria.

For the full draft of the plan, you can go to: http://www.hamiltoncountyohio.gov/commdev/v2/Hamilton_County_NSP_Application_draft%20for%20publication.pdf.

UPDATE: Here's a story in the Enquirer on the program: http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20081118/NEWS01/811180328/1076/BIZ.

The communities allocated a set amount of dollars, based on foreclosure numbers, are: Colerain Township, Springfield Township, Forest Park, Norwood, North College Hill, Cheviot, Golf Manor, Mt. Healthy, St. Bernard, Cleves, Lincoln Heights, Elmwood Place, Lockland, Silverton, and Woodlawn.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hearing from You: Budget Public Hearings

The Administrator has made his recommendations for our 2009 budget, and before we on the commission make our decisions, we want to hear from you. We will be hosting three public hearings to gather citizen input:

November 19, 2008, 6:30 p.m.
Sharonville Convention Center
11355 Chester Road, Sharonville, 45246

December 3, 2008, 6:30 p.m.

The Drake Center
Rooms F and G, Level A, West Pavilion
151 West Galbraith Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45216 -1096

December 10, 2008, 6:30 p.m.
Cincinnati State, 3520 Central Parkway, Cincinnati, Ohio 45223-2690

Please come to share your feedback, priorities and ideas.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Big Picture County Reform

A process is playing out in Northern Ohio that may ultimately impact us down here.

Earlier this year, the State of Ohio created a commission to study Cuyahoga County government, which is structured just like our's (a statutory structure, versus a charter structure). That commission recently issued a report that details the challenges of County government, and recommended a number of major reforms to County government. This report is now under consideration in Columbus, and who knows where it will lead--or how it may someday impact other counties like our's.

For those interested, the full report can be read here: http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2008/11/County%20Reform%20Declaration%20asd.pdf

The recommendations would have a major impact on how Cuyahoga County is run, which positions are elected versus appointed, and the spending of taxpayer dollars. Some of the major recommendations include:

- retain a three member County Commission, but move to a stronger, elected President of the Commission (similar to moving to a strong Mayor approach): the President would recommend the annual budget; recomend the appointment of the administrator and department directors; and oversee those administrators;

- merge the Auditor's, Recorder's, and Treasurer's into a Department of Finance, the head of which would become a department director appointed by the County Commission;

- make the Clerk of Courts office into a position appointed by the Court of Common Pleas;

- make the Coroner and Engineer into positions appointed by the County Commission;

- keep the Sheriff and Prosecutor as elected positions, but transfer the civil division of the Prosecutor's Office as the Department of Law under the County Commission, with an appointed director

- create a Human Resource Commission to set appropriate and uniform standards, requirements and hiring policies for County employment.

To many citizens, this may all seem like inside baseball. But as a County official, I can tell you this set of recommendations would fundamentally change almost all aspects of the way a County is run, including who citizens get to vote for.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. In the meantime, as I study this issue myself, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Everyone Should Get To See . . .





. . . what I saw today.

As part of National Adoption Month, I was invited to witness seven adoptions by foster parents of kids in our County. And it was an amazing and moving event.

These were kids from the ages of 1 to 17, including two sets of siblings, who were in foster care due to abuse or neglect. And today, the foster parents who had initially stepped up to take them in at a difficult time formally welcomed them into their families as permanent adoptees.

As Probate Judge Cissell approved each adoption one at time, the warmth, love and joy in that room was palpable. And from a broader community level, the event is equally meaningful. Each of those adoptions creates a stable, loving home for a child who otherwise would face obstacle after obstacle in trying to make it in this challenging world. Needless to say, no program, no amount of money, no other solution we could come up with, will come anywhere close to the impact that today's adoptions will have on the future success of these children.

Unfortunately, there are many more who need the same help--but today was for celebrating the success stories.

The Enquirer provided a nice preview for this event here: http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20081112/EDIT01/811120372/1020

And a good story, with even more photos, here: http://news.cincinnati.com/apps/pbcs.dll/artikkel?Dato=20081115&Kategori=NEWS01&Lopenr=811150369&Ref=AR

Thank you to Judge Cissell, our JFS social workers, and most importantly, the incredible adoptive parents I met today, for today's wonderful coming together.

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