Saturday, September 27, 2008

Drug Court Expands Thanks To Large Grant

It's amazing to say this at this time, but we just heard GOOD NEWS from Washington.

Yesterday, at the annual Talbert House lunch, I had the privilege of announcing that our County just received a $900,000, 3-year federal grant to expand our drug court. Drug court is a model program that allows us to divert into a rigorous treatment program those non-violent offenders whose primary problem is a drug addiction. Having been to a number of drug court "graduations," let me tell you that this approach truly changes lives, one at a time.

This grant will expand the capacity of the drug court by 200 additional persons a year.

Needless to say, this is big news. One of the Criminal Justice Commission's major recommendations is to expand the drug court's capacity, and this grant will allow us to do just that. This type of approach also helps us reduce recidivism, and alleviates even further our jail overcrowding problem. (200 people per year is a huge number, and translates into real savings versus the cost of incarcerating that number of people.)

Thanks to all those organizations that worked hard to secure this important grant.

Friday, September 26, 2008

County Employee Morale During This Terrible Economy and Budget

UPDATE on benefits:

After hearing substantial feedback from employees, today we unanimously reduced the proposed spousal surcharge to employees by 50%, and we reduced the proposed additional dental employee contribution by 36%.


Yesterday, I received this very honest and thoughtful post from a county employee. I really appreciate and respect this input, and imagine many others feel the same way, so I wanted to spend some time responding to it:

"Mr. Pepper this is on another topic but I hope you can help. Someone told me about your blog. I work for the county. We are struggling with no raises and our health care costs going up more than double last year. Some of the people I work with make so little they need public assistance to help them get by. Now I hear health care costs are going up again. People who work for the county do so because of the benefits. They could make more money with private employers who pay a lot more. Well now there are no good benefits. We are paying more than some private employees when it comes to health insurance. People will not work at the county if this happens. The people who are good enough to go to private employers will and we will be stuck with those who are left. Then the county will be in trouble when it comes to helping people. I don't want this to happen. Can you help us? Can we get raises? Can we cut health care costs? Can you do something for us?"

First, thank you for posting this. I greatly want to hear the thoughts of those who work for the County, and have always hoped this blog would be a way to do so. Another County worker publicly shared similar concerns at our last Commission meeting, and I greatly respected him for doing so. What scares me most is when I hear NOTHING. I want to know what people are thinking, and how they are feeling about things. Over the past 18 months, I've actually been surprised by how little feedback I get from our employees. I hope to get far more input in the future, in whatever way employees are comfortable doing so.

Second, let me say that one of the first things I emphasized to our Administrator when I arrived at the County was my worry about County employee morale. I heard it and felt it all through my campaign, from employee after employee who I met at their home, at festivals, or in parades. It worried me greatly then, and it worries me as much now. As you suggest, the consequences of that morale staying low are dramatically bad for our County--lower productivity, good people leaving, etc.

Third, part of that low morale came, I believe, because the commissioners themselves treated employees poorly. Calling them names such as "bureaucrats" when it became politically convenient to point the finger at someone. Running down the work of whole departments in the media, instead of constructively trying to improve things, etc. This kind of public disrespect shown toward the County workforce was incredibly unhealthy. In my time on the commission, I have worked hard to try to change that environment, so all County employees understand that the commissioners themselves respect the hard and difficult work you do every day (three weeks ago, I publicly corrected an attorney who derided employees as "bureaucrats" when he was trying to make a point). I would appreciate any thoughts on other ways we can improve the environment further.

Fourth, of course I also understand that a key part of that morale involves the wages and benefits our employees receive, particularly at this difficult time with prices going up and overall economic turmoil. Despite a difficult budget year in 2007, when sales tax revenues were slightly better than projected, I was pleased that we were able to provide a raise, and make it retroactive to the beginning of year.

This year, revenues have been so in the tank that we have not been able to do so, something I'm not happy about at all. I wish it were not the case, but we're really stuck, like so many other governments and businesses are, by this horrendous economy. Because I don't think any of us should get a raise if our employees do not, I, Todd Portune and a few other elected officials gave back our state-required raises so we're at least all in the same boat. (I know that's not much consolation.)

Looking forward, our 2009 budget year is not going to be easy--indeed, it will be worse. We face a hole of $20M or more, largely because sales tax, property transfer tax, property tax, and local government fund revenue are all slumping, along with interest revenue, due to this "perfect storm" of economic bad news. It doesn't make it any easier, but other counties nationwide and the state are facing the same problem, and grappling with the same tough decisions we face.

As you note, we are in the process of looking at every cost saving we can to get through this. I have previously asked for employee input as to where to find savings, and have received a few suggestions, but not enough. I'd greatly appreciate more (through this blog, perhaps), because I don't doubt that those who know the most about where we can save money are the men and women who work for this County every day. (If you suggest something anonymously, I have no way to know who submitted it, by the way). We have also challenged all departments to think through and implement any reforms or efficiencies they can--because every dollar saved through greater efficiency and reformed operations is one that we don't have to find through more drastic cuts.

Unfortunately, in trying to make it through this tough budget, almost everything is on the table. A number of changes to health benefits have indeed been suggested, have been discussed at several of our recent meetings, and are under consideration for next week. While it's clear we will adopt some of these options as part of our 2009 budget, we also will reject the most dramatic options available because of our concern over the negative impact they would have on our employees at this difficult time. Of those we do choose, we have tried to minimize the impact as much as possible. Overall, it is a tough, unsatisfying balancing act, but one we must do. Doing nothing will only make other cuts we make more painful.

This is not a fun process for anyone. My hope is that we continue to trim our budget to get through a tough 2009, and we make sure we are doing all we can to spur economic growth near-term and medium-term (this County has long underfunded basic economic development, so we haven't been in the growth business as strongly as we need to be). If we accomplish savings through tough decisions at this difficult time, while getting any type of economic uptick in mid-2009 or later because of national trends and our own economic development efforts, it will then allow us to afford, over the long-term, a combination of wages and benefits that guarantees good lives and good morale for the public servants who work so hard to deliver critical services each and every day.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Foreclosure Prevention Effort: 700 Homes and Counting

While the titans in DC and on Wall Street negotiate a bail-out package nearing $1 trillion (so far, the details are scarce, which scares me), we in Hamilton County and Cincinnati have managed to turn a very small investment into positive results on the housing and foreclosure front.

Over the last 18 months, the County and City have used federal grants to fund housing counseling/foreclosure prevention efforts across our community. These counselors sit down with troubled homeowners, walk them through the hurdles of the foreclosure process, and seek to refinance or negotiate terms with the lending institution (who more and more have an incentive to avoid the foreclosure).

In the first 18 months, this process has saved more than 700 homes from foreclosure. Since each foreclosure leads to a lost property value of $50,ooo-$60,000 to the surrounding community, the net savings in property value from these averted foreclosures is in the tens of millions of dollars.

Today, myself and Councilmember Jeff Berding, working with a number of local banks, launched a public awareness campaign to be sure people know about these services.

Often, the key step to avoiding foreclosure is simply to pick up the phone (call 211, the United Way number, and ask for a housing counselor). Too many homeowners don't respond at the first sign of trouble, digging a deeper hole and almost guaranteeing that the foreclosure will happen.

Unfortunately, foreclosure filing are continuing to happen at a record pace. But there is a local response, and dialing 211 connects citizens to the help they need right away.

UPDATE: The Enquirer's Peter Bronson did a nice write-up on our announcement:

For more details on the campaign, go to

For a detailed report on foreclosures in our county, go to

Monday, September 22, 2008

Windstorm Survey: Help Us Do Better!

September's monthly survey is about the windstorm. How did it impact you? More importantly, what is your view of the response? How can government, relevant institutions and utilities, and the community prepare and respond better?

We at the County will be assessing the response, and what changes and improvements must be made. As we do so, your input will be invaluable. Click the link below to take the survey:

Pepperspectives: Citizens Step Up To Windstorm Challenge

Last week was a challenging one for hundreds of thousands in our region.

The windstorm affected almost everyone, in many different ways. I for one had much of the siding from my house blown off and strewn all about. Others are just getting power back now. More than 10,000 of our less well off citizens came through the County (by Friday) to get food stamps to pay to replace the food they had lost. And, sadly, a handful lost their lives in truly tragic ways. Our prayers go out to them and their families.

But it was also a week that showed the best our community has to offer.

Neighbor helping neighbor (including my own neighbors helping me). Communities coming together. A heck of a lot of patience by so many, sitting in the dark night after night. Churches and families opening up and giving generously to those who were out of food, out of power, or just wanted a break from the darkness. And many public servants and private workers laboring night, day and all weekend to get us all back to normal.

You can judge individuals or a people by how they react to a challenge. While we didn't face the severity that other Americans did hundreds of miles south, this storm and the collective response by our citizenry showed just how strong a community of citizens we have.

No doubt, though, there is also much to assess, learn from, and improve from how government and the major institutions were prepared for and responded to this storm. From initial preparation, to the logistics of the response, to the communication with citizens of what was happening and what to do, we will conduct a comprehensive assessment, and gather public input as we do so. There is certainly much to improve.

We were fortunate in many ways last week. It wasn't too hot, and wasn't too cold. It didn't rain. The storm left as quickly as it came. After Sunday, the only challenge was simply cleaning up the mess.

Next time something unforeseen befalls us, we may not be so lucky. So we better be more prepared, and we will be. But from last week's experience, one thing we know we can count on is the community stepping up to the challenge.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pretrial Services: A County Gem

Sometimes, it’s easy to take things we do well for granted. And it takes others to make clear when we’re really good at something. That happened to me last week.

I spent several days in D.C. around a table of county leaders from across the country, all of whom are facing the same challenges we are when it comes to jail overcrowding and public safety. We all shared the same frustration: continued concerns about crime, limited budgets, the out-of-control costs of building and running jails, and a subset of our population with deep challenges that enter and exit our jails again and again, often for nonviolent crimes.

The question we grappled with? How do we maintain our priority of public safety and law and order within such strained criminal justice budgets.

While we discussed many aspects of this problem, one answer that became clear was to have a top-notch pre-trial services department. Something we have right here in Hamilton County.

Pretrial services essentially works as a front door to the jail, gathering detailed information and assessments on alleged offenders as they enter the system, and allowing judges and the “system” to make the best decisions possible to assure public safety, preserve precious jailspace, and reduce recidivism.

It’s a system that guides judges, in a world of limited space and resources, as they make the critical decision of which inmates stay in the jail pre-trial, under what conditions, or what other alternatives exist. The department figures out which non-violent offenders are most likely to appear at trial, which would most benefit from treatment and other types of rehabilitation so they don't reoffend, versus those where jail is clearly the only option to keep the community safe. And it helps us get away from a system where the simple ability to generate dollars quickly for bail is the deciding factor between who gets back on the street, and who stays locked up. After all, is that the best way to assure community safety?

Last year, Todd Portune and I expanded our pre-trial services work to include an even more robust approach. The results have continued to come in positively—reducing recidivism among numerous offenders, and alleviation of some of the overcrowding problem. In addition, more jailspace for those who need to be locked up, and less money squandered on bandaids like Butler County.

As we described our commitment to this approach in D.C., other county leaders all shared that our's was a model they thought would help counties more broadly. Most exciting, they want to study and use what we’re doing in Hamilton County as a model for counties across the nation.

For more information on this best practice, go to
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