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City Council overrides Mayor John Cranley's veto on funding The Center for Closing the Health Gap

Controversial non-profit gets $692,000
Council may have agreement on OTR street project
Posted at 7:13 AM, Oct 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-18 01:22:27-04

CINCINNATI -- Six members of City Council voted to override Mayor John Cranley's veto and give a controversial health organization nearly $700,000 in funding Wednesday.

Swing vote Jeff Pastor joined Tamaya Dennard, Gred Landsman, Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young to award $692,000 to The Center for Closing the Health Gap.

The council also voted to make over Liberty Street in Over-the-Rhine, start a new police recruit class three months earlier than planned and expand ShotSpotter to Price Hill.

The WCPO I-Team has raised questions about the financial practices of The Center for Closing the Health Gap. Cranley vetoed funding for the non-profit last week.

Twenty-one people spoke during Wednesday’s public comment session before council met. Thirteen of them were in favor of funding for the center.

"We can’t afford to build and have endless pockets for stadiums and then when we’re talking about the health of the city — the overall city — something is very wrong when we’re playing games with the lives of our citizens," said Victoria Straughn.

"As a black male 68 years of age, I have benefitted very much from their services they provided over the past years," said Robert Humphries.  "The black men health initiative has been responsible for reaching thousands of black males since 2013."

The center’s leader, former mayor Dwight Tillery, looked on as council debated using money from reserves to help his group.

Cranley opposed the funding — some say because of politics. Cranley said the center could apply for money from social service agencies.

Nevertheless, a majority of council seemed comfortable with its decision.

"We have assurances that all their books are open," said Seelbach.  "The city is not going to pay a bill that’s not appropriate.  I’ve gone and seen the work that they’ve done."

"I say they were funded over the summer, we have a fiduciary responsibility to fund them again, and if we’re going to do that to the Health Gap, we have to do that to every organization that we give money to," said Pastor.

The center received over $3.8 million from the city of Cincinnati between 2007 and 2017.

An investigation and audit found that during that time the center failed to keep foundational promises such as stocking healthy produce in 11 stores across the city and instead spent significant amounts on money on advertising. At the end of the audit, the center was ordered to pay back around $40,000 it had improperly spent.

Some leaders in the black community, however, said they believe Cranley's thumbs-down was a personal attack on Tillery.

"Dwight Tillery decided he wouldn't support the mayor for re-election," Young said Tuesday, referring to the 2017 mayoral election in which Cranley defeated challenger Yvette Simpson. "That's what changed, and all of a sudden, the Center for Closing the Health Gap couldn't do anything right."

Liberty Street will get a new look that’s been six years in the making, reducing it from seven lanes to three lanes from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and allowing on-street parking the other 12 hours.

Seelbach has been pushing for the change, saying it would improve pedestrian safety. Residents say the current Liberty Street, which cuts Over-the-Rhine in half, is unsafe and businesses have trouble staying open. Liberty Street was built as a connector between I-75 and I-71 before Fort Washington Way.

Council didn’t have the sixth vote needed to override the mayor’s veto until Pastor changed his mind.

“It was difficult because you’ve got so many competing factions trying to pull you one way or the other,” Pastor said Wednesday.  “Me and my colleague, Mr. Seelbach, were the six votes for the omnibus bill and the Liberty Street project.  It was a lot of pulling from here, robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

To fund Liberty Street, Bethany House expansion was cut $150,000.

“I think it’s a lot of what people would like to see our national leaders do.  We both gave,” Seelbach said. “We both didn’t get exactly what we wanted, but we came up with a compromise that we can both live with.”

Last week, Cranley vetoed the $3.4 million Liberty Street project as well as  a budget ordinance that would have allowed for millions in changes to the current city budget.

Cranley cited the $1.1 million cost to move a relatively new water main on Liberty Street. He also criticized the plan for removing 85 on-street parking spaces and potentially causing traffic bottlenecks.

“To spend a million dollars to move a water main that was just put in 15 years ago, that has 85 years of life left, is reckless,” Cranley said. “It’s irresponsible. You almost think it’s a joke."

Councilman Greg Landsman pointed out Wednesday that the FC Cincinnati stadium will also require the re-location of a water main.

"If we can do it for a soccer stadium, we can do it for a neighborhood," Landsman said. 

The police recruit class will start three months earlier than expected to keep staffing levels high.

ShotSpotter has been an effective crime-fighting tool in Avondale, and Price Hill residents have encouraged the city to implement it in their neighborhood.