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.
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