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:

For a good summary of the hearing, go to:

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.
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