The following is my Cincinnati Post column from Oct. 6, 2007. It did not appear on the Post’s Web site and a few of those who read it online have asked to have it posted. Thank you for asking for it, and here you go…
Budgets are not popular political issues. Maybe that is why few are talking about Cincinnati’s projected 2008 deficit of $20.4 million as the Nov. 6 election approaches.
I’ll tell you who is talking, though, but doing it in hushed tones, traversing on political thin ice: The city’s administrators whose job it is to count the city’s beans. Bad news. Ain’t many beans left.
Swimming pools. Health clinics. Arts funding. Saint Patrick Parade and the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade. Street sweeping. More police protection. The list of city services that means so much to so many Cincinnatians — many of which make this a wonderful place to live — are expensive.
How’d we get here? Several things, according to budget officials, but dramatically rising health care costs for the city’s employees and bigger demands on the public safety budget are good places to start looking. About 81 percent of the city’s budget goes to personnel expenses.
And it doesn’t get better anytime soon. The gap between projected expenditures and revenues continues to widen in the next few years. By 2010, general fund revenues are expected to be just under $370 million, while expenses will balloon to near $400 million.
Meanwhile, announcements keep rolling in ahead of Nov. 6 touting extended swimming pool hours, money for parades and other events that are politically popular promises. Take last week’s unanimous vote by City Council to fund city retirees health care at 100 percent — a clear violation of city law because it does not mirror coverage for current city employees — adds another $10 million to the city’s deficit for next year and into the future.
The Cincinnati Police Department had the distinction this year of becoming the first city department — probably ever — to single-handedly have more money directed toward it than all other departments combined. About 37 percent of the general operating fund goes toward police (fire gets about 25 percent). Weird thing is early on in the policy budget debate in 2006, Police Chief Tom Streicher said he did not need any more police officers (he later changed his mind). Yet at least one incumbent is promising to add more police if he is re-elected.
Next highest budget gobblers? The Health Department, which gets 8 percent of the general fund budget, followed by public services (those fixing potholes, sweeping streets and removing snow in winter), who get 7 percent. All others are in the 2 to 3 percent range.
Many city budget watchers are frustrated by the moves to promise new spending, wondering where the money will come from. Meanwhile, Milton Dohoney has asked all city department heads to identify 15 percent in possible cuts.
Council Member Chris Bortz has said the city cannot cut its way out of this mess, which he has called a “crisis.” He suggests finding new efficiencies, re-focusing priorities and combining services with other municipalities.
Whatever happens, it has to happen soon. It would be wise for the citizens to take notice and let the politicians know this is bothersome before this situation worsens.
Joe Wessels covers Cincinnati and Hamilton County government for The Post. Write to him at [email protected] or call (513) 352-2703.