By Tom Blumer | For Ohio Watchdog
CINCINNATI — Urban politicians have typically fought tooth and nail against privatizing municipal services, with one exception: when doing so simultaneously raises money to temporarily plug holes in bloated budgets. That is exactly what is happening right now in Cincinnati — except that this time, pesky constituents are getting in the way.
In early March, “just 15 days after it was introduced,” City Council hastily passed, with very little public discussion and scant public disclosure, an “emergency” ordinance enabling the city manager to enter into a complex 30-year lease of its parking garages and parking-meter system involving, among other things, a $92 million upfront infusion into city coffers.
Many city taxpayers were outraged. Despite a tight submission deadline, a broad coalition of groups that often disagree sharply on other matters launched a petition drive to place the measure before voters in November.
On Friday, the Board of Elections in Hamilton County, where Cincinnati is the county seat, certified that activists collected enough valid signatures to place the matter on the November ballot. The final signature count was almost 4,000 more than the 8,522 needed.
This is a big problem for city leaders, who apparently thought they could rush the parking deal through with little fuss. You see, they’ve allowed Cincinnati’s financial situation to deteriorate so badly, and for so long, that the status quo-defending city manager submitted a budget for the next fiscal year that would not balance unless the parking deal got done. WCPO Digital’s Kevin Osborne reports that, “Cincinnati has had structurally unbalanced budgets since 2001.”
Predictably, the political establishment has not been handling opponents’ efforts well. During the petition drive, Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory resorted to the kind of demonizing language we’ve all too often seen in Washington directed at anyone who even whispers about the dire need for the federal government to start controlling its spending. He attempted to intimidate potential signers into worrying about their personal safety by claiming, as relayed by the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Jane Prendergast, that “anyone who signs the opponents’ petitions is essentially signing a pink slip for a police officer or firefighter.”
Mallory and the council cohort who supports him continue to play the public safety card, insisting the city has no choice but to lay off at least 140 policemen and 89 firefighters in July. They appear doggedly committed to making those layoffs happen to prove their point. In doing so, they are affecting a posture sadly similar to apparent efforts by the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington to make sure that airline passengers feel the pain of sequestration-related federal budget “cuts” — which are more properly characterized as “reductions in current and projected spending growth” — despite reasonable alternatives for avoiding it.
Others on the council and one 2013 mayoral candidate have publicly disagreed that police and fire layoffs are a foregone conclusion if the parking deal doesn’t happen. That candidate, former council member John Cranley, whose political instincts clearly lean left, has proposed budget adjustments, which would more than plug the $25.8 million shortfall anticipated in the next fiscal year without layoffs.
This naturally leads to the question of what council and the mayor want to do with the rest of the $92 million. WLWT reports that much of it would go to the following:
Those projects include transforming a largely vacant mall in the heart of downtown Cincinnati into a parking structure and street-level shops, building a 30-story mixed-use high-rise with downtown’s first grocery store, and helping build a new I-71 interchange at Martin Luther King Boulevard.
Of the three items listed, two are clearly not functions of a properly limited government, and the third should be deferred until the city is on a sounder fiscal footing.
The “vacant mall” downtown is a vacant mall because city planners thought they knew better than the market where shopping malls should be located. As I noted at Watchdog in December, it was “an economic millstone around the city’s neck for more than two decades.” Now, city planners seem to believe they can outsmart the market with “street-level shops.” They never learn, do they?
The same goes for the “mixed-use high-rise,” which looks like yet another potential money pit. If having such a structure downtown with a supposedly coveted grocery store makes sense, someone will acquire property and build one. If it doesn’t, they won’t. Why is that so hard to understand?
The Martin Luther Boulevard interchange might actually be a good idea, as it would improve access to neighborhoods that could very well redevelop nicely if given the private investor-driven opportunity.
A representative of the Ohio Department of Transportation has told me that local governments requesting otherwise unplanned projects such as this must come up with a significant portion of their funding. In this particular case, the city and ODOT are still working on how much of the estimated of $66 million cost the city would pay. But even with the parking lease money, the city really shouldn’t commit to anything without meaningful, long-term structural financial reform. It’s probably too much to hope for, but the possibility of having the money for improvements such as the MLK Boulevard exchange might serve as an incentive for reform, and for voter pressure to do so.
City fathers aren’t at all interested in that kind of constructive thinking right now. Instead, they’re trying to keep the measure off the ballot in court on the grounds that, in essence, they can hang the “emergency” tag on any legislation, making it not subject to referendum, any time they feel like it. Unfortunately, it appears that they have a reasonably good chance of success.
Here’s hoping they fail. If enough voters think the public should decide, and take action to enable that to happen, that’s what should happen.