Hundreds pack hearings this week to ask for city funding for heroin, poverty, neighborhoods

CINCINNATI – Standing-room-only crowds filled three public hearings this week, as 170 Cincinnati residents pleaded for city funding for heroin addiction treatment, work training programs, neighborhood activities and saving the Mt. Airy water towers.

It’s now up to Cincinnati City Council to choose where tax dollars will be spent during an exceptionally tight budget cycle.

City council must pass a budget by June 30. The process is off to a late start this year, with the resignation of former City Manager Harry Black, so the pace of negotiations will be intense over the next two weeks.

“All of these causes are good,” Ryan Dattilo said, during his request for city funding for the Center for Addiction Treatment at a Monday night public hearing. “I feel like everybody is fighting over the same little bit of money.”

Most of the city’s $1.4 billion budget is comprised of funding reserved for big items, such as the police and fire departments.

So each year city council fights over a small pot of roughly $2 million that gets divvied up between human services agencies and outside groups.

That fight is intensifying this year because city budget dollars are so tight. Huge crowds showed up at three nighttime public hearings this week – nearly double the usual turnout.

"Honestly I find it rather frustrating that every year we have to come and parade in front of you and tell you that recovering from addiction, providing shelter and housing, and preventing homelessness and violence, are worthy of funding, said Josh Spring, executive director of Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition at Monday night's meeting. "Every year we have to come and say that. It’s like having to explain the sky is blue, when its in front of our eyes.”

Several human services groups will speak at a press conference on Friday at Bethany House Services, to urge city council for full funding and for tax dollars for the Winter Shelter. 

“There were way more people than during any of four years I was on council,” said former city councilman Kevin Flynn, who attended at least one public hearing to speak against the demolition of the Mt. Airy water towers and for heroin treatment funding.

“There’s never enough money to make everybody 100 percent happy,” Flynn said. “It never is enough. There is always going to be a greater need than funds available.”

A few groups, such as the Center for Closing the Health Gap, handed out T-shirts to supporters at the public hearings.

For the first time in more than a decade, the Health Gap, which has been the target of an internal audit and several media investigations into how it spends taxpayer money, may get zero dollars from the city.

Mayor John Cranley wants to strip all direct proposed funding for the Center for Closing the Health Gap, or $562,500, and use that money to stop potential cuts to human services agencies and pro-growth groups such as the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber and REDI Cincinnati.

"They should compete like everybody else for the human services funding, and they're not excluded from doing that. It's just fair to treat organizations the same," Cranley said.

Since 2007, the Health Gap – which is led by former mayor Dwight Tillery -- has collected nearly $4.3 million in city funding. It routinely gets more money than most other nonprofits in the city -- $750,000 this year. It also historically got its funding directly from the city, instead of applying through the United Way as most human services and outside groups do.

But the Health Gap, which works to eliminate health and racial disparities, is fighting to keep its city funding.

As of Thursday, Health Gap supporters sent more than 200 postcards to City Hall urging leaders to preserve the funding.

Several other agencies had large groups of supporters present at the three public hearings – Cincinnati Works, which helps people in poverty find jobs; the Center for Addiction Treatment, which got no city funding through the United Way despite heroin being a top city funding priority; Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, which collected more than 900,000 pounds of litter last year; the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority, which repurposes land and fights blight; and many other human services groups that fight homelessness, hunger and poverty.

Many members of neighborhood councils from across the city showed up at public hearings to protest proposed cuts to their budgets. Acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney proposed cutting their budget from $353,600 to $265,200 – money neighborhoods use for movie nights at parks, block parties and festivals.

“Those of us who work in these neighborhoods know the value of that money that we work so hard to stretch for projects that strengthen the vitality of our neighborhoods,” Sue Wilke, a member of Northside Community Council, said on Monday night. “In this time of $34 million stadiums and property tax abatements this seems like a small amount to ask.”

The city was facing a $32 million budget hole. Duhaney was able to fill it, without layoffs or closing pools and recreation centers, by raising city fees and cutting spending by 25 to 50 percent to outside groups.

In the coming week city council will no doubt want to restore some of that funding. But it will be hamstrung by several big spend items – a $1 million increase to the city’s emergency communications center budget and 10 more staff, and GPS locators in police cruisers at a $455,000 cost.

With such a big deficit, it is uncertain whether city council will criticize the same rate increases it has voted down in the past – such as booting for illegally parked cars with outstanding tickets.

“I’m 70 years old, I’m on a fixed income, and every time I turn around it's another fee,” Charlie Furlough complained at Monday’s hearing. “It’s just more and more money on our backs. And nobody is getting a raise.”

So far council members have been silent on the proposed hikes to storm water rates, parking meters, waste hauling fees and building permits. And Flynn believes city council will pass all the rate hikes without objection.  

“No one is going to criticize the parking boot this year,” Flynn said.

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