CINCINNATI - Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory insists police and firefighter layoffs are needed to avoid a budget deficit if a controversial parking deal isn’t implemented.
Some city officials, however, say other options are being ignored.
If parking lease opponents collect enough signatures to force a referendum on the lease, Mallory and a City Council majority plan to layoff 344 city workers.
The proposed layoffs include 189 police officers and 80 firefighters.
But at least three council members and a mayoral candidate think there are alternatives to laying off workers.
"The reality is that positive, preferable alternatives have been offered and do exist,” said Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.
“The city administration needs to offer real answers for why they won't go forward with better options that don't involve their plan to gut our safety forces," Sittenfeld added.
Sittenfeld and Councilman Chris Seelbach have called for a special City Council meeting on Thursday to discuss alternatives with City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr.
The pair believes Dohoney hasn’t seriously considered alternatives other than layoffs.
"Last year, we spent $100,000 on getting the public's input on budget priorities, yet have not used those results to balance our budget,” Seelbach said.
Seelbach is referring to the priority-based budgeting process approved by City Council in March 2012.
Pushed by Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who heads council’s Finance Committee, the city hired a consultant to hold six public input sessions last April to determine what city services residents value most, and what they might be willing to do without.
The sessions were followed by focus groups and an online survey.
Council made some cuts based on priority-based budgeting, but not nearly enough to balance the budget. The cuts totaled $1.3 million and included items like taking $610,770 from human services funding and $300,000 from Media Bridges.
Despite paying $100,000 for the Denver-based consultant, Dohoney still submitted an unbalanced budget to council in December. His proposal relied on a then-unrealized lease of the city’s parking system to a private contractor to avoid a deficit.
When Dohoney unveiled the lease plan in February, it sparked public outcry.
Small businesses were worried rate increases and aggressive enforcement might drive away customers, while some residents said the city was undervaluing a prime city asset.
Nevertheless, City Council approved the lease in a 5-4 vote just 15 days after it was introduced.
Seelbach and Sittenfeld opposed the lease, as did Councilmen Christopher Smitherman and Charlie Winburn.
Seelbach and Winburn have each offered an alternate slate of cuts besides laying off police and firefighters, as has mayoral candidate John Cranley and council candidate Greg Landsman.
All of the alternatives call for using some or all of the $12.7 million in anticipated casino tax revenue that the city would receive annually. Dohoney recently revised the estimate downward to $10 million, but some believe that is too conservative; at one time, the city estimated $14.7 million.
Currently, 25 percent of the casino tax revenue is set aside for operating expenses of a planned streetcar system in downtown and Over-the-Rhine, and $4 million for the Focus 52 neighborhood program.
Seelbach’s budget plan would redirect $7.5 million of the casino tax revenue.
Also, his plan calls for $5 million in cuts including in the budgets for City Council and the city manager.
Additionally, it consolidates some police and fire services, puts a freeze on 20 vacant positions and eliminates car allowances for some employees.
“Tough cuts will have to be made, but that does not have to include laying off 80 firefighters and almost 150 police officers,” Seelbach said.
Further, Seelbach proposes two charter amendments to be decided by voters: One would implement a $10 monthly trash fee, while the other would increase the city's admissions tax by 2 percent.
If either were approved, they would help avoid future deficits, Seelbach said.
Meanwhile, Winburn wants to use all of the city’s casino tax revenue, along with implementing a 15 percent to 20 percent pay cut for non-union city employees. As an option to pay cuts, he said those workers could be furloughed temporarily.
Cranley wants to reallocate $10 million in casino tax revenues.
Also, he proposes a 10-percent cut to the budgets of the offices of the mayor, city manager and City Council, along with the same cut to the Community Development, Finance, Human Resources, Law and Planning departments.
The cuts could be accomplished by reducing the salaries of everyone in those offices and departments who make more than $80,000 annually, Cranley said.
Greg Landsman, a Democrat running for council this fall, has his own alternative.
He proposes $23 million in potential savings including $3.5 million from not filling vacant positions, $2 million in carry-over from last year, $7.5 million in casino tax revenue, and $7 million in additional parking revenue from a parking deal with the Port Authority that's locally financed and doesn't involve a New York hedge fund.
“We have three or four plans that offer other options like using casino money and reducing non-essential spending before putting cops and firefighters on the street,” Cranley said.
“Clearly, it’s more important to the mayor and council majority to fund items like $200,000 for the city lobbyist than save public safety jobs,” Cranley added. “That alone would save three cops.”
But Mallory and a council majority held a press conference Tuesday insisting there are no choices: It’s either the parking lease or laying off police and firefighters.
“The parking plan is our last hope to not have to make these types of cuts,” said Councilwoman Yvette Simpson.
“We don't have anywhere else to pull from" for cuts, said Councilman Cecil Thomas. Referring to the parking lease money, he added, “This will get us through another two years.”
“It is a bridge, not a solution,” Qualls said.
Mallory, Dohoney and some council members have blamed cuts in state funding to local governments for the city’s budget woes.
Cincinnati lost an estimated $40.7 million in state funding for 2012 and 2013.
Still, Cincinnati has had structurally unbalanced budgets since 2001.
The term means city government spent more in expenses than it took in through revenues. Deficits routinely were avoided during those years by relying on using emergency reserves or one-time sources of money to balance the budget.
For example, the 2011 budget used about $27 million from emergency reserves and borrowing from the workers compensation fund to avoid a deficit.
And the city’s budget for 2012 was only balanced by accepting a $14 million payment from Convergys Corp. in return for allowing it to reduce the number of employees it promised to keep at its downtown location.
The 2013 budget also relies on one-time sources of $11.6 million in General Fund carryover money, which accounts for about 28 percent of the total amount.
At Tuesday’s press conference, a council majority pledged to do better with the city’s 2016 budget.
“We do need to start right-sizing our budget,” Said Councilwoman Laure Quinlivan. “We've kicked the can down the road every year I've been on council.”