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:

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:(

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:

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:

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:

UPDATE: Here's a radio interview I did on the issue:

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.
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