I went to the Hamilton County Commissioners Public Hearing last night regarding the proposed 2008 Budget. I hadn't planned to. I was watching the Nov 26th County Commissioners meeting on public access. They mentioned that a public hearing on the proposed 2008 Budget would be held the next day at 6:00. But I was watching the meeting on the day they were talking about and it was already 5 pm.
I had chicken in the oven and a bag of corn in the freezer. I nearly decided not to go. In the end, I set my daughter the task of finishing dinner and headed on down to Court Street.
The main question asked last night was, anyone got a spare $35 million dollars lying around? I suppose that's why only about 6 black people showed up, including Hamilton County Coroner, Odell Owens. Black unemployment is at about 11% in Hamilton County, mirroring the rest of nation at rates double white unemployment. And if you don't have a job, you're not likely to have an extra $35 million in spare change to help the county with it's projected deficit.
It's a shame more black folks weren't there though. However, no one really planned for them or too much of anyone else to be there en masse. There were probably about 100 chairs for the 120 plus people who did show up. I stood up for most of the meeting and finally snagged a chair so near the front of the room that I was literally stage right on the dais. There were many people who decided they would rather stand than be so conspicuous. It was only that I really wanted to get a pictures of more than the back of Odell Owens' head that lured me forward.
The county is facing a $35 million dollar budget deficit. They have several proposals (I think it was 8) on how to make up the difference. They never said the words "Issue 27" or "Jail Tax" but I was to learn in the course of the evening that the code word for those two phrases were "Public Safety".
The Commissioners have stated that the only way they know to increase revenue at this time is to increase fees for County services, reduce raises for employees and also eliminate over 100 positions. Thompson's recommendation to the commissioners is that all items that are considered discretionary rather than necessary be cut.
This struck me as a tad drastic and maybe even a little dramatized. My own perception after a while was that the Commissioners were not happy with the way the jail tax went, so they were going to make funding cuts where people would see them most, not where they would be most invisible, as retaliation against the voters, mainly black folks who thought that a new jail built expressly for them, was not the answer to the county's problems.
That was my own, admittedly limited, take on things. This is what other people had to say:
The County Coroner fighting for his budget and the necessary equipment to do his job. Excerpt from my hastily scribbled notes last night:
Coroner budget is discretionary? Why the hell does the Coroner have to fight for his budget? Hamilton County Coroner's office lot an employee to BCI due to budget issues? Owens is asking for a $150,00 piece of equipment that he says will generate $1 million in revenue. Why not give it to him?
People who are a part of Hamilton county 4H and key greenhouse operators in Hamilton County fighting for the funds to keep operating their link to the OSU Extension services. The cutest 4-H members you ever saw walked to the podium and begged the Commissioners not to cut off their opportunity to participate in 4-H. Seems 4-H has some obscure rule that when you start 4-H in one county, you can't switch to another county, so they can't just join up with another group in Butler or Clermont or something. This part of the budget cut means the end of their 4-H experience. When they sat down the crowd gave them a big round of applause and a heartfelt "Awwww."
I heard a lot about a "rebirth" in Over-the-Rhine. Several people spoke about how the climate in OTR has changed for the better now that the Sheriff's deputies and litter patrols are a fixture there and how horrible things will be if they leave.
I heard a man accuse the Commissioners of being irresponsible with the taxpayers money. He stated that the deficit should be made up by increasing property taxes dramatically, end tax breaks for whites and big business. He also stated that we should release Marcus Frisson from jail and all the homeless people from the Queensgate jail. He also stated that we should scrap the Banks project.
I heard a woman state that the problem with the Commission is lack of imagination and lack of and lack prevention. That we are quick to lock people up when they break the law, but we are slow to find the causes and address how they got there in the first place. She also recommended that the Banks is full of closed door deals and commented on the irony between a $35 million deficit and the more than $35 million we've spent on the Banks.
Another man revisited the stadium deals and how the $7 million deficit in stadium operations and $51 million in cost overruns may have something to do with the County's leaking money problem. He also mentioned that in two years we will start paying the Bengals for the stadium lease. He wanted to know if we what part of the "necessary" cuts would be made to the Bengals.
It's terribly impolite to interrupt people but I wanted to remind the man that unfortunately, Hamilton County has taken the Bengals to court twice over our contract with them and we've lost both times. The bottom line is, our representation agreed to and signed a very bad deal with the Bengals and we are stuck with the contract.
One woman stated that she was sick of people claiming indigent status to get out fines. If we just enforced the stay to pay system, we wouldn't have a budget deficit. She stated that we are "paying people to criminalize" (whatever the hell that means).
I wanted to tell her that most smaller courts are circumventing stay to pay and instead going with "plead guilty and pay now" or "plead innocent and go to jail now". I really wish I could have talked to her but she left.
In several side conversations, and one in particular, I learned that affordable housing is a taboo subject around these parts. If you can't pay "market rates" you really don't count much. The push is for "young professionals" or "empty nesters". The kind of people who can pay $200,000 for a condo plus condo fees and garage parking and afford to drive to Ridge or surrounding areas to get their groceries. Or who will take the new streetcar and go on a nice little tour or bar crawl around downtown.
As for what will happen to the families and the people who really need housing they can afford. There's always section 8 or they'll get by somehow. There's always the suburbs or Hyde Park. Why would they want to live in the city anyway?
And as for the families who are already there? No one knows and no one really cares as long as the sheriff's patrols keep them in line and protect the business investments that are being made downtown in condos. Sad but true.
I saw three Commissioners and an Administrator who really, truly almost care about what happens to this county. Part of it anyway. I think they really want to do a good job, but sadly, they only know one way to do it. And all those ways have failed us in the past. And I feel, like the lady said, they have no imagination and true will to buck the corporate powers that be and give people real leadership and solutions.
I saw David Pepper listen to people. I saw Todd Portune address the crowd with warmth and humor. I saw Pat DeWine listening intently but several times he put his hands over his face as if he just can't believe how hard this all is. I saw him make the same gesture on tv. It's a sad gesture of bewilderment, confusion, fatigue. As if he's either sick of all this or maybe he has an answer but the rest of us are long past listening.
I felt that three people was far too few to make the huge decisions concerning Cincinnati and all the Villages, Townships, small cities and neighborhoods that make up Hamilton County.
I feel that the people of all those villages, townships and small cities need to do a better job of sending their representation to these meetings and getting the information back to their neighbors. Because these decision affect us all. And the more we know about them, the better.