CINCINNATI -- Let the five weeks of plotting, wrangling and "Game of Thrones" alliance-forging begin at Cincinnati City Hall.
Each year the weeks before City Council passes the city's annual budget are filled with tense negotiations. But this year -- with council and mayoral elections looming -- the budget fight could get very heated as council members posture for pet projects or against certain cuts in a tight budget.
“It’s all about trying to get your name in the press and get attention,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel, a Republican who served several terms on council from 2001 to 2009.
Six of the nine City Council members are running for re-election in November and one, Yvette Simpson, is challenging Mayor John Cranley for the mayor’s office. So far 40 people have pulled petitions to run for City Council.
“It’s an open field race," Monzel said. "You’re trying to stand out among 20 or 30-plus candidates. It will be very interesting to see what people are doing in the next month and half.”
The next five weeks will be filled with intense horse trading before council must pass a budget by June 30.
“You’re going to hear a lot of speechifying,” Monzel said, chuckling. “They should have a timer.”
But the political dynamics and shifting alliances ahead of the election may make it harder to get the five council votes needed to pass a motion, or six votes to overcome a mayoral veto.
“It’s extra complicated because we have a mayor and then we have the mayor’s opponent, so you have yin and yang there,” said Vice Mayor David Mann.
The budget is also exceptionally tight this year, which will make negotiations all the trickier.
City Manager Harry Black unveiled his $1.1 billion operating budget on May 11. While he was able to fill a $26 million hole in the proposed budget, he said he came “within a millimeter” of laying off employees and closing facilities.
But he didn’t do it without controversy. When Black presented the budget to council on Monday, members questioned him intensely about parking fees and fines.
Council members are already questioning how that might play out with voters come November.
Black was able to increase the city’s revenue stream by raising parking tickets from $45 to $60, booting illegally parked cars, increasing building permit fees and boosting parking meter rates.
“It just seems like a lot of money for a fine,” Councilwoman Yvette Simpson said.
Councilman Wendell Young said residents frequently complain to him “about what they’re already paying” in parking tickets and fines.
Councilman Chris Seelbach worried that a private company could aggressively pursue putting as many boots on cars as possible.
“It does not seem to me the type of revenue we should be creating for the people we represent,” Seelbach said.
Council members are also struggling with some budget cuts. Black is recommending all outside groups – from the United Way to the city’s neighborhood community councils – receive an across-the-board 25 percent cut. That saves the city $1.7 million.
With a budget this tight, council members won’t have as much room to fund pet projects to win votes in key neighborhoods.
“Our budget is so tight that’s put a real lid on some of that," Mann said. "That hasn’t been the case every year.”
But Councilman Kevin Flynn, who is not running for re-election, is still worried about overspending on earmarks.
He filed a motion this week to change the way the city funds outside groups. Most human services groups that receive city funding are vetted through the United Way. But a handful are not – such as Center for Closing the Health Gap, which just underwent city audit of its spending practices and must return as much as $20,000 to the city.
“Just because a group has nonprofit status is no reason to ignore appropriate contracting standards,” Flynn wrote in his motion.
Flynn wants all human services agencies to apply for city funding through the United Way. And other outside groups must have a contract, with specific performance measures attached, before they get city funding, under his motion.
“I think it’s the height of irresponsibility when you say we’re going to allocate X number dollars to this group and we don’t even have a contract with what this group is going to do,” Flynn said.
But Flynn is unsure his motion will get the votes to pass. In this case, he’s hoping the upcoming election will prompt council members to vote with him.
“Maybe I’m naive, still but I think vast majority of Cincinnatians want that kind of fiscal responsibility,” Flynn said. “That will give challengers an awful lot of ammunition for the fall campaigns.”
On Thursday Cranley, who in the midst of his own tough re-election campaign, will unveil his suggested changes to the proposed budget.
It is uncertain whether he will restore full funding to his Hand Up Initiative, an anti-poverty program that helps the long-term unemployed find jobs. It was cut by 25 percent, as was funding to nearly all outside agencies.
On the campaign trail, Cranley always touts public safety as his top priority. So in order to win the police vote, he may decide not to delay the start of the next Cincinnati police recruit class.
Black had proposed delaying the recruit class until November, from its original July start date, in order to save the city $2.3 million.