Show Me the Money

In the last few years there’s been an explosion of economic activity in Cincinnati and it seems like every headline is better than the last.  GE is bringing 2,000 jobs.  Hotels are opening right and left.  There’s not enough housing to meet the demand of people wanting to move back into the city.  Travel writers are touting us as a destination.  There are more new high-quality restaurant choices than my husband and I have time to try.  And the crowds on the streets at all times of the night and day confirm this new prosperity. 

The only thing that seems to be missing is the money. 

According to the conversations I hear at City Hall and quotes shared on Twitter from talk radio – which is apparently the preferred conversation vehicle of serious elected officials these days – there is none.  We’re still squabbling over a couple of million that might have to come out of the general fund for the damn street car like it was our last dime.  Which it apparently is.  Because the other day I saw an editorial asking if it was more important to fund treatment for heroin addiction or bicycle infrastructure, as though responsible adults in a prosperous, successful city should have to choose.  We can’t afford our trash collection, enough cops or to fill our pot holes and neighborhoods have to arm-wrestle each other for financial support.

It’s the contradiction between this hopeless message from our political leadership and what I observe with my own eyes that has made me grab onto this property tax issue like a rabid dog.   

Where the hell is the money?  The increased revenue that should be coming from more sales tax and more income tax from all the new construction jobs.

7 days a week I call government agencies, write blog posts, visit Council Members, make requests for public documents, study charts and contracts and websites – scouting out clues as to where the money is going.  

Not that it’s particularly appreciated.

“I assure you there are plenty of people who understand how this works,” the head of one agency snapped when I stated that I had been unable to find anybody in the city other than the real estate developers who understands the complicated funding mechanisms that are fueling our growth.  While everybody makes lip service to more public engagement in the political process, the truth is city and agency employees already have more work on their desks than they can handle and they don’t need me adding to their to-do list.

This poor-mouthing is not all empty political rhetoric either.  Our municipalities are taking in less money from the state, the percentage property taxes contributes to the city’s bottom line has declined from 14% to 7%, the county is hurting and every city department has come to assume additional budget cuts on an annual basis.  

I’ve lived in this city for 58 years and let me assure you, in terms of economic growth, this is as good as it gets. If we can’t figure out our money now, we’re doing something very wrong.  And to reduce our problems to the street car operating budget is either disingenuous or economically illiterate.

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4 thoughts on “Show Me the Money

  1. Kevin Hines

    Although I doubt you’re very interested (given what you’ve been through), YOU should be in public office here. Seriously. I enjoy reading your stuff and, to be honest, I learn more about the behind-the-scenes machinations of the city from your blogs than I do from either the media OR our elected officials. It would be nice to have a cynical, no-nonsense, Smart Cookie like yourself in city government. Then again, I’m sure every one of our local politicians had delusions of grandeur and “Let ME Help YOU”-purpose before they got sucked into the whirlpool of douchebaggery of this city’s politics…

    Reply
    1. executivedreamer Post author

      Kevin Hines, I like you, too. Since I am an intellectual-introvert with weird hobbies like pouring over public records, I am totally ill-suited to public office. Luckily it’s amazing how much we citizens can influence the public conversation without ever going to the trouble of running. I am sincerely appreciative for all those bold souls who make the sacrifices necessary to keep our government running. — That said, I do have to take exception to your word choice when you use the adjective ‘cynical.’ Because the truth is I am extremely positive about our city – Isn’t the progress we’ve made miraculous? And these economic problems? Normal growing pains, not at all that difficult to solve if we focus our collective talents and intelligence. I better watch my tone.

      Reply
  2. Travis Estell

    For decades, the city had been shrinking, forcing us to make cuts year after year. (Well, cut everything except for police and fire, which now makes up something like 60% of the city’s operating budget.) We’re now in a good place…starting to grow again. As we add more residents and more businesses, the budget problem will solve itself. The reality is that we must offer tax incentives to lure new companies, to encourage people to renovate historic buildings, etc. We also need to invest in the things that will encourage more residents in the city, like good parks and good transit. But those investments will lead to even more vibrancy and economic activity. As those incentives expire, our budget situation will improve quickly.

    Reply
  3. executivedreamer Post author

    Travis, 6 months ago I could have written your comment almost word for word. But after my foray into the size and scope of the incentives we’ve given away over the past 30 years – incentives that still haven’t expired – I’m not so sure. We actually have TIF districts on top of TIF districts down at the Banks (heard that from Kevin Flynn yesterday). these are new experiments for Cincinnati, the same kind of deals that almost bankrupted California to the point they have discontinued their usage. — Incentives are not a one-size-fits all proposition and there’s a wide range of possibilities. Please make the case for 30 year abatement on office towers with 64 million in public funding that are designed to be sold immediately. Maybe my brain is weird after so many years as an investment adviser. I’d feel better if there were more measurement going on, if I could find more people willing to talk about the incentives publicly. We will be OK in the end – but boy oh boy is there room for improvement in the decision making process. We’re investing for our future – and yet I don’t see anybody doing any of the heavy-lifting that comes with good investment decisions. A lot of times council is relying on Economic Impact Reports commissioned by the developer. I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of wasted city investment – particularly in retail projects that all seemed like a good idea to somebody at the time. I think we can do better with a more fact-based transparent process. It shouldn’t take me 6 months to dig out the financial details on these deals. If these are so great, let’s have all the facts in a form that’s easy for the public to understand.

    Reply

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