Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Griffey Era

I wish I had kept the ticket stub.

I was privileged to see Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 606th HR several weeks back, a no-doubter to right field against San Diego. Little did I know it would be his second to last in Great American Ballpark.

I'm a pretty die-hard Reds and Bengals fan. As a kid, when either team had their first loss of the season (sometimes, that happened pretty quickly), I was so worked up I couldn't sleep that night. I think I didn't sleep for several when the Doug Flutie-led (and not very impressive at the time) Patriots broke up what I was sure would be our undefeated Bengals season (we were 6-0 at that point) in the great 1989 season.

And when the Reds made it to the World Series in 1990, I promised all my college classmates that the Reds would take Oakland in 5. I blew a big red horn out my window with each victory, to the point that a lacrosse player in my dorm threatened to get physical. It's a good thing they won in four.

All that being said, it is indeed a bittersweet end to the Griffey era. While I, as much as any fan, was frustrated that injuries and a lack of surrounding talent kept him from being all he was in Seattle, I was lucky to have watched one of the all-time greats play for eight years.

In the end, much of the frustration came, ironically, from the fact that Griffey physically slowed and repeatedly injured himself over time, while other players in their late 30s seemed to bloom and stay as strong as ever. Well, now we know why! While he was aging naturally like most of us, the others of his caliber were cheating. And I hope Griffey's long-term legacy will be that he achieved greatness the right way.

If the White Sox make the playoffs and the Reds don't, I will be cheering for him to win his first World Series. And I know I won't be alone. He is, after all, a Cincinnatian.

And as a Cincinnatian myself, I will be cheering hard as we begin the Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Edinson Volquez era. How great will it be as we open "the Banks" in the coming years to have winning baseball at the same time.

Hope does indeed spring eternal.

Uncollected Stimulus Checks

Mayor Mallory and I yesterday jointly announced something I hope readers will help us spread the word on.

The United Way recently informed me that Hamilton County, and Cincinnati in particular, are one of the highest ranked urban areas (18th) in the number of eligible seniors and veterans who have NOT filed for and received their economic stimulus payment (which resulted from one of the few things that Congress and the President were able to agree on this year).

More than 17,000 veterans and Social Security retirees in Hamilton County could miss out on hundreds of dollars owed to them. Of these potential recipients, more than 16,000 live in the City of Cincinnati. And there are surely others missing out as well. With rising gas, health and food prices, the stimulus dollars will provide a real boost to many folks.

And multiplying these numbers by the $300-$600 for which every citizen is eligible, our local economy is missing out on millions of dollars collectively.

That's the bad news. The good news is that it's not too late to change this. People can still file by the deadline of Oct. 15, 2008 in order to receive a payment THIS year.

Individuals or families must have at least $3,000 in qualifying income, which can be income from Social Security benefits or Veterans benefits.

Filing is very simple. To get information on doing so, citizens should call United Way 211 (Dial 2-1-1), or contact the IRS directly and toll-free at 1-800-829-1040. Hours of operation are Monday-Friday, 7:00am-10:00pm. To receive face-to-face help from the IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers in Cincinnati, visit one of the following locations Monday-Friday from 8:30am-4:30pm:
550 Main Street, Cincinnati, Oh 45202
9075 Centre Pointe Drive, West Chester, OH 45069

If you have a hunch that someone you know may not be aware of the stimulus package, please help spread the word.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Dawn of GASP!

UPDATE: Due to an error, GASP is currently not operational. I will let people know when it is back up.

Despite an occasional disagreement, we at the County have generally been working well across party lines. One example: GASP (Government Accountability in Spending Program, I believe).

Basically, GASP is transparency in spending and empowerment of taxpayers. Commissioner DeWine proposed it several months ago, and we all agreed it was a great idea. The Administration implemented it incredibly quickly. And beginning today, citizens, including commissioners, can scrutinize County spending at the micro-level any time they want--down to individual purchases.

I know I and my staff will be on this site a lot to find waste and excess spending, and I call on citizens to do the same, and alert us to any spending that seems excessive, unwise or inappropriate--paticularly at a time that we are so pressed financially. (Remember, we are in a spending "lockdown," where we only are supposed to be spending on things that are essential for this year). My hope is that the constant scrutiny will also lead to more general spending discipline. Comment on this blog anytime you see something noteworthy.

Example: In quickly looking at the site, I already have spotted that general fund dollars have been expended on numerous purchases of coffee service, which was something the Commission had voted to cease purchasing under our "spending caps" instituted in December 2007. I have already inquired as to how and why these purchases were made despite our clear policy. This is a small item, but these things add up quickly.

To access GASP, go to:

I have already received an inquiry from a staff member of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio about this idea, because it is something they thought might be worth replicating elsewhere.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Model That Works

Several years ago, as a member of City Council and chairman of its Law Committee, I was part of a planning committee to deal with prostitution--proactively.

For close to a year, a group of us from all sectors worked to come up with a comprehensive solution to prostitution. No surprise, most women caught up in prositution are in dire straits primarily due to drug addiction. The drug habit is primarily what feeds the criminal behavior, along with other factors. And those were the underlying causes we sought to address.

This committee led to the creation of the Off the Streets program, which is an intervention program for women caught up in prostitution, providing intensive services for women who choose this path, rather than simply having them repeatedly jailed and released, year after year. I've been to one of the OTS "graduations," and it is deeply moving to see the life-altering changes this program makes for women who were only recently on the street.

Not only is the program working, it was recently recognized as one of the top three programs in the country (out of hundreds of applicants) by the Mutual of America Foundation. According to the organization reviewing the application, OTS is the "best collaborative they have ever seen!"

Congratulations to all members of this partnership (judges, social service agencies, Sheriff's Department, law enforcement, etc.), but particularly Cincinnati Union Bethel, which manages this model program.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Looking for $ Under Every Rock

Today, the Commissioners took a number of steps to deal with continuing budget problems. We're working across party lines to find every and any source of savings that makes sense. Citizens are demanding that we do more with less, and that is exactly what we are working to do.

As part of that effort, I presented three issues that, together, could potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even more:

1. Take-home vehicles (potential savings: $100,000s)

Ohio law is very clear. No automobile owned, hired or leased by the County can be used “for any purpose other than the transaction of official business.” O.R.C. 307.43.

Take-home vehicles can be a useful and appropriate tool, particularly in law enforcement or other services that require immediate County response directly from an employee’s home. But without clear and appropriate policies and controls, take-home vehicles and their associated costs (insurance, fuel, etc.) can also become an unnecessary drain on the County’s budget, totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The County has 121 take-home vehicles, across seven departments (out of 905 total vehicles).

The Motion I presented calls on the Administration to review and report back to the County Commission on the use of these vehicles, and the policies and controls of each department to ensure that we are keeping costs down while adhering to the Ohio guidelines.

Link to the motion:

2. Overtime (potential savings: $100,000s to millions)

If well-managed, the use of overtime can provide an appropriate tool to deliver services—and no doubt overtime costs will mount in an environment of hiring freezes. If poorly managed, however, overtime can lead to excessive spending and inefficient service delivery.

The 2008 Overtime Budget for Hamilton County’s General Fund budget is $4.1M. Any meaningful improvements in overtime management could help us grapple with our 2009 budget challenge, and save hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Motion calls on the Administration to review and report back to the County Commission on the use of overtime by department, and recommend policies and controls to ensure that we are using overtime only when appropriate.

Link to the motion:

3. County Parking (potential savings: $10,000s to $100,000s)

County-owned personal parking spaces are, collectively, a valuable asset that, in the private sector, generate real value. This asset doesn’t belong to individual officials, but to the County and taxpayers. At this difficult budget time, where the County is assessing the value and use of all of its assets, the County should do the same with this asset.

The “system” today appears to be scattered and inconsistent. While some County employees, generally those who make lower salaries, appear to be responsible to pay for their personal parking spaces, other County employees, many at the higher salary levels, receive a personal parking space for free.

The Motion asks the Administration to do an inventory of all County-controlled parking spots, review and report back on the breakdown of what rates are being paid by whom, and explore various options on how to ensure a fair and equitable system. The bottom line: those employees who currently pay for personal parking should not have to pay more. But the County should review if it is fair and wise that higher paid officials in particular benefit from this valuable asset for free.

Link to the motion:

Overall, my hope is that all these issues will lead to significant savings, and increase confidence among taxpayers that we are spending prescious dollars on THEIR priorities. More to come. In the meantime, continue to send your ideas . . . . .

A New Era: Paperless Meetings

Two weeks ago, I casually mentioned to our County clerk, Jackie Panioto, that is sure seemed like our meetings consumed a lot of paper. It was sort of the beginning and end of the conversation--or so I thought.

In only two weeks, she implemented a paperless meeting process that will save a lot of money (we estimate as much as $50,000), and a heck of a lot of trees. Today was our first trial run, and it worked without a hitch.

The Enquirer descibed this in their blog today (including a photo showing a fraction of just how much paper we're talking about):

Thanks, Jackie!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Veterans in Our Jails

I came across a sad and troubling statistic the other day. But it's one that is already spurring action at the local level, and that could become an opportunity for progress in dealing with jail overcrowding, reducing recidivism, and lowering costs.

Across the country, we all know that too many veterans come home facing challenges the rest of us don't have to grapple with. Some have life-altering injuries and scars--both physical and psychological. Many face acute mental health issues and substance abuse. Some end up homeless, and some even sit in our jails, or cycle through them again and again. At the conference I attended for county officials across our country, this was an issue that got a lot of attention.

Hamilton County faces these same issues. Most strikingly, our Court's pretrial services department recently informed me of the following numbers:

- on a one-day snapshot (July 23, 2008), 99 veterans were in our jails (out of 1945 total), including 5 who were active duty, and 9 who were medically discharged;

- from January 1, 2008 through June 30, 2008, 1125 veterans went through our jails (out of 23,009 total cases), including 26 active duty, and 53 who had been medically discharged. 973 had been honorably discharged;

- sadly, of those 1125, 217 were identified with a mental health issue, 642 with substance abuse, and 205 with both.

The sheer number of veterans going through our system was startingly high. The number who face substance abuse and mental illness hurdles also was alarming.

The challenge here is that we can and must do something, particularly to help those non-violent offenders who are cycling through largely due to a substance abuse or mental illness issue. The opportunity is that due their veteran status, there are far more opportunities to help these individuals, thanks to the benefits they have earned through their service and access to places like the VA. (If we do this the right way, like the medicaid issue, we can avert County taxpayer costs by ensuring that as many costs as possible are picked up by veteran services and benefits).

I have asked our pretrial services department, through our new reentry initiative, to get organized to solve this issue. First, we will work to verify every veteran coming through the front door of our justice system. Working with other agencies, including the VA and the Veterans Service Commission, we will then identify those for which diversion is a viable option (for violent crimes, it will not be) as opposed to jail, and if there are veteran-focused services out there that could help steer the veteran to the treatment they need and a better path over the long haul. (Hopefully, the bill for such services will be covered by veterans' benefits, as opposed to the County-cost that is incurred through a jail term). There are other options we also will be looking at, including for those who ultimately serve a sentence but still re-enter the community thereafter.

Like everything else, we'll do this work carefully, with public safety as our top priority. But if we do it right, we can save local taxpayer dollars, reduce crime and recidivism, and help improve the lives of many who served this country.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Good News on Adoption

Leadership makes the difference.

In the past year, we've seen an incredible flurry of activity and reform at our Hamilton County Department of Jobs and Family Services, and the results are starting to come in.

Today's Enquirer noted the great increase in adoptions we saw in 2007 (a new record), and our continued success in 2008. This marks a real turnaround from prior years, when outside observers severely criticized the department's poor record on adoption. Rather than sticking these critical reports on a shelf, the County took their criticisms and recommendations seriously, and implemented numerous reforms as a consequence. So far, it looks like they're working.

There are many people throughout JFS and the community working hard to bring about these good results. Much credit goes to Moira Weir, who took over the department about a year ago, and has done a fantastic job from the start. This job is one of the toughest in local government, and is particularly difficult right now because of the state audit that we are working through.

Even with these challenges, Director Weir has produced great results in this and other areas.

Finally, let me take a moment to explain just how important these results are. Finding foster kids a stable adoptive home and family is critical, both to those kids and the whole community. Those kids who "age out" of foster care--meaning they turn 18 without ever being adopted--face so many challenges, and they do so without the benefit of having grown up in a stable, supportive, loving family. Even the strongest young people will struggle to get over this unfair hurdle, and too many, sadly, fall through the cracks.

Nationally, the statistics on the fate of these "aging out" kids are stark:
- 56 percent become unemployed
- 27 percent of males end up in jail!
- 25 percent end up homeless!

We need to do everything we can to avoid these outcomes. And the most important thing we can do is to keep foster kids from "aging out" in the first place--by finding them an adoptive home as early as possible.

And that's why the great improvement in the last two years is such good news.

Congratulations, JFS!
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