Soapdish: Of Dollars and Sense
As we careen down the glistening and glittering path of this year's blessed "holiday" season, it is time, dear Soapdish devotees, to genuflect, reverentially, at the altar of…um….the proposed "City of Cincinnati 2011/2012 All Funds Biennial Budget." Yes, that glazed look I now see creeping across the collective faces of our yuletide readership tells me that the 543 page behemoth sitting balefully on my desk is not, well, the most riveting of topics.
But there's more than just number-crunching involved here, folks. No, the interested parties involved have been jockeying for position for some time now, invoking a cross-pollination of anti-streetcar disinformation and demagoguery in a quixotic quest to defend their necessary budget turf.
No more front and center has been Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) President Kathy Harrell. Along with International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) President Marc Monahan, Harrell has been on the attack, seeking to protect the force from a proposed funding cut covering some 187 sworn officers. All told, the proposed budget of the City Manager tallies 370 layoffs as well as a $20 million revenue boost in trash collection fees in order to address the $58.7 million deficit. If this sounds like something of a familiar annual ritual, well, it is. Unfortunately, however, Council engaged in some budget-fun chicanery at this time last year, thereby punting on the tough decisions. The proverbial day of reckoning is nigh.
Lost amidst all of the cacophony and clamor of the cuts, however, is the issue of revenue. Specifically, how does the city increase its tax base? Income and property taxes generate 74% of the city's general fund revenue, a fund that has declined 7% within the past three years. Moreover, we live in a city that has lost a third of its population from peak years. The city simply cannot cut its way out of a structural deficit, although that seems to be what most of the conservative critics deem necessary. Yet there is an odd tension between the law and order demands of the right, the anti-tax tea partiers of COAST (the "Coalition Against Spending and Taxes") et al., and the pro-union demands of the FOP and IAFF, among others.
Nevertheless, Kathy Harrell and company aligned with the dinosaurs at COAST a few weeks back, launching a political action committee entitled "Citizens Against Streetcar Swindle (CASS)," designed to once again kill what they call the "boondoggle" streetcar project. Like a dimwitted yet resilient hydra, the folks at COAST have dusted off and trotted out ex-Congressman Tom Luken to lead their crusade of lies and misinformation. Aligning with the police and fire unions, while an inspired choice, provides some interesting contrasts. On the one hand, we have a police department that employs more officers per resident than most large cities in the Midwest, including Columbus, Dayton, Akron, Youngstown, Indianapolis and Louisville. While the city's population has dropped 8.5% over the past 20 years, the police force has grown by 21%. Moreover, while the total police and firefighters have grown 10.5% in the last decade, the number of non-public safety employees has declined by 32%. On the other hand you have anti-spend/anti-tax COAST folks, who demand cuts in all spending (which, presumably, includes police and firefighters).
What all of the numbers point to is that, yes, hard cuts have to be made. Right-sizing the police force, and, for example, not sending fire trucks every time there is a non fire-related medical emergency (e.g. toothaches, cable cut off), are an inevitability. Shared sacrifice is necessary, and some of the sacred cows of the past will need to be redirected to the slaughterhouse.
The streetcar is a proven tool for economic development
. It is the means by which we grow the city, attract new residents and investment, and grow the city's tax base. Given that tax increases are the "third rail" of our current political climate, the streetcar is an empirical tool for revenue enhancement in the absence of increased taxes. In so doing, the city reverses the decline in the general revenue fund by boosting property and income taxes. Curiously enough, opponents have never provided an alternative to enhance revenues, despite being repeatedly asked, point blank, for a solution. At an anti-streetcar "rally" on Fountain Square last month, COAST spokesperson Mark Miller's bewildering reply, was that revenues have been consistent throughout the city's history and are fine just the way they are. Instead of growing the city, they offer spending cuts.
While it is acknowledged that cuts certainly have to be made, proposing a remedy of all cuts, no taxes and no revenue enhancement is essentially a recipe for a dying, shrinking city. Despite all this, CASS has vowed to kill the streetcar project, a project which would, to shorthand, generate an estimated $378.2 million
in economic development impact over some 30+ years. A project which bisects 57% of the tax base for the entire city. Moreover, according to City Manager Milton Dohoney, the proposed operating budget contains no line item money
for the streetcar, and even if it were not built, the deficit would still be $58.7 million.
But opponents see an easy mark here, perpetrating a false dichotomy of "streetcars v. safety," and once again requiring the city to devote the money and resources to put out the unnecessary fires of opposition. Interestingly enough, no less esteemed source than the Enquirer editorial board weighed in on the budget brouhaha just this past Sunday. Our monopolistic local paper of record took a predictably anti-organized labor tone, in the process offering, among other deep thoughts, the earth breaking proposal to eliminate the Mayor's bodyguard as a solution to our budget ails. The Enquirer also posed the following challenge: "But where are the proposals for fundamental changes that not only will make city government more efficient now but will prevent budget imbalances in future years."
This is indeed a curious bit of institutional rhetoric, considering the source. As documented in these very virtual pages
, the Enquirer's coverage of the streetcar project has, under the transparent veil of "asking the hard questions," consistently skewed to the uber-negative. Ironically enough, however, their solemn budget editorial conveniently contains nary a mention of the streetcar and what it will ultimately mean to the city's bottom line.
Perhaps a lesson can be found in the illustrious annals of history.
In the 1870's, Cincinnati was a booming town. A city looking to grow, not shrink. During that time, amidst much fanfare, the city overwhelmingly approved issuing $10 million in bonds in order to build the Cincinnati Southern Railroad. While today's opponents would undoubtedly label such a project a "boondoggle," from 2003 through 2010, the CSR has generated an estimated $130.5 million for the city, yielding approximately $18 million annually for city coffers. It is projects like this, as well as the streetcar, that constitute the "fundamental change" and forward thinking that the Enquirer demands. The type of fundamental change which boosts a growing city, rather than shrinks a dying one. The sooner everyone understands this the sooner we can jump on the streetcar and move forward as a city.Photography by Scott Beseler.
City of Cincinnati 2011/2012 All Funds Biennial Budget
Casey Coston sees how long this would take to type.
Street car on display at Fountain Square
Casey Coston trying to make sense of the budget.