Backers of parking referendum submit more than 19,000 signatures

Police, fire union leaders slam Mallory

CINCINNATI - Opponents of Cincinnati's plan to lease its parking system submitted more than 19,000 signatures Thursday to try to get a referendum put on the ballot.

The number was more than twice the amount required. As with most petition efforts, however, some likely will be thrown out as ineligible.

Still, the sheer volume means it is likely a referendum on the city's parking lease will be held in November, unless an appeals court overturns an injunction preventing the lease from taking immediate effect.

The First District Court of Appeals will hear arguments in the case May 6.

Referendum backers needed to submit 8,729 signatures of registered voters who live within city limits. That's 10 percent of the turnout in Cincinnati for the last gubernatorial election.

Initially, backers thought they needed just 8,522 signatures, which was 10 percent of the turnout in the last municipal election.

A total of 19,803 signatures were submitted.

About 270 volunteers went door to door during the past month to collect the signatures by the deadline.

The signatures will now be placed on public display for 10 days, then go to the Hamilton County Board of Elections for certification.

Mayor Mark Mallory and a five-member City Council majority that support the parking lease have said it's needed to avoid a $35 million deficit.

Without the lease, Mallory said 344 city workers would be laid off including 189 police officers and 80 firefighters.

Last week, Mallory urged residents not to sign the referendum petitions.

"People need to not sign a petition," the mayor said at a March 28 press conference. "If you sign a petition, you're laying off a cop or firefighter."

The statement didn't sit well with the leaders of the police and firefighter unions.

"Police and fire are getting so tired of being pitted against the citizens," said Kathy Harrell, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter. "The mayor's comments are not helpful."

Matt Alter, president of Cincinnati Fire Fighters Local 48, said council should be able to identify enough cuts elsewhere in the city's $1.3 billion budget without jeopardizing public safety.

"Let's have cooler heads prevail," Alter said. "Let's put politics aside and put the public first."

The four council members who opposed the parking lease agree. They believe City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. – who is hired and can be fired by the mayor – isn't being forthcoming about other possible cuts.

Council members who oppose both the parking lease as well as police and fire layoffs are Democrats P.G. Sittenfeld and Chris Seelbach, Republican Charlie Winburn and independent Christopher Smitherman.

Sittenfeld and Seelbach called a special council meeting Thursday afternoon to discuss other options for cuts.

Council had planned to use part of a $92 million upfront payment from the parking lease to cover shortfalls in the 2014 and 2015 municipal budgets.

City Council must approve a balanced budget by July 1.

Without the lease, Dohoney proposed a "Plan B" that includes 344 layoffs along with closing three community centers and six swimming pools, among other cuts.

Under questioning by Sittenfeld, Budget Director Lea Eriksen conceded Plan B was devised without council input.

"There wasn't specific policy direction from council for Plan B," Eriksen said.

"When the administration brings us two bad options, shame on us for accepting them," Sittenfeld said.

Dohoney didn't attend Thursday's meeting. In his place was Assistant City Manager David Holmes.

When Seelbach asked if other options exist to avoid the $35 million deficit besides the parking lease or layoffs, Holmes replied yes, if they are cuts that can occur before July 1.

Smitherman noted the city has $21 million in carryover funds; of that amount, $9 million was put in a reserve account. The money could be used to cover the shortfall, he added.

Mallory became angry over criticism of Dohoney and his administration.

"I don't like it when our professionals are accused of being political," the mayor said, before pounding the desk with his hand.

The city's budget crisis is due to council being unwilling to make difficult choices in making cuts every year, Mallory added. He likened council's criticism to members setting a fire, then complaining about how long it took to put out and not liking what type of equipment was used.

The lease of the city's parking meters, lots and garages was approved March 6 in a 5-4 vote.

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.

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