By Bill Woods
The City of Cincinnati is in the midst of passing a new budget in this far from normal year. Not only is COVID-19 still with us, but the City has just experienced more than two weeks of protests related to the murder of George Floyd and police racial bias in general. The Pandemic exposes the economic and social inequities already existing in urban America, while the tragic event in Minneapolis puts the spotlight back on decades of police violence against African-Americans. All this takes place as City Council wrestles with a budget presented to it by City Manager Patrick Duhaney and Mayor John Cranley.
The budget itself is not an easy problem to deal with. A potential deficit usually looms, and the City has not raised its earnings tax in decades. In fact, Council has steadily cut the percentage of dollars it can take from the property tax. This year is no different, and the deficit projected at the beginning of the budget process was $73.4 million.
The budget must be passed with no deficit by June 30th, and Council may have already approved this 2021 financial blueprint at its Wednesday meeting one day prior to the publication of this issue of StreetVibes. At this point, Council is holding a series of public meetings so citizens can voice their views about city and neighborhood funding needs. Members have already heard a lot of diverse opinions.
The budget presented to Council by the City Manager and Mayor includes items that already prompt opposition. The total operating budget given to Council, $411.9 million, represents a 1.2 percent decrease from 2020. Due to falling revenues due to the Pandemic, the projected deficit needs to be covered by cuts to most City departments and services and by borrowing up to $50-million. The budget does include funding to put all City employees furloughed during the pandemic back on the payroll.
Particularly contentious items are greatly reduced funding for the streetcar and increased dollars for the Police Department. Mayor Cranley has always opposed the streetcar, and its very limited funding for 2021 essentially shuts down its operations. During the pandemic, the streetcar has not been running, but a majority on Council have always overridden the Mayor's opposition to maintaining this service. At this moment in the budget negotiations, it is too early to predict how this issue will be resolved.
The funding item currently receiving the most vocal opposition is the additional money for the Police budget. The budget delivered to Council increases the Department's budget from $151.7 million to $152.6 million. This is by far the largest item in the City budget, but the Mayor defends the increase because much of it goes toward fully funding the Citizen Complaint Authority, the body charged with investigating allegations of police misconduct.
The fact that the police budget is over one/third of the entire budget is certainly out of step with many protesters' demand for "defunding the police. "Defunding" means everything from starting from scratch to envision a new public safety system to reassigning certain current police responsibilities to social workers and neighborhood organizations. For instance, a number of pastors representing African-American churches just met with Mayor Cranley to talk about a plan that would fund Cincinnati neighborhoods to take responsibility for public safety in their areas.
Meanwhile, a special meeting at the Convention Center sponsored by Council to hear citizens' views about the budget brought out a number of young people from the local protest movement. They demanded reductions in the police budget. Several speakers declared that if Council members failed to take action on police budget cuts, the protesters would organize to defeat them at the polls.
Many other issues were voiced by citizens at the budget hearings. The need for the City to provide funding for low-income neighborhood projects and human services that assist families and individuals was articulated by numerous attendees. Cincinnati's affordable housing crisis was also cited, and speakers called on Council to adequately finance the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. In short, Council members face a lot of hard choices before casting their final vote on the 2021 City budget.