“The lifeblood of a city is its income tax,” former City Council member, Chris Bortz, stated when he was chairman of Council’s economic development committee under Mark Mallory. “You need to have more jobs.”
With more than 70% of the city’s operating budget coming from income taxes, this has long been the accepted wisdom of politicians, city administrators and business leaders all across this country, clearly reflected in every development proposal the city receives.
Call me crazy, but I think it’s time for Cincinnati to obsess on a new metric.
My former employer, Merrill Lynch, dominated Wall Street for decades because they figured out before their competition that the most important statistic for bottom line profitability in the financial services industry was not commissions. Every corporate directive hammered home only one objective for producers: bring in more assets under management. More client assets not only resulted in stronger, long-term relationships, but, eventually, significantly higher profits for the firm as well.
You get more of whatever you measure and as long as jobs are the sole yardstick for our success that’s what we are going to get: temporary construction jobs, waiters and kitchen help, hotel maids. And occasionally a 2,000 job whopper like GE. But fifteen years down the road, those same jobs can be lured to Mason or South Carolina or Mexico, our investment gone along with them. Changes in the economy frequently result in permanent downsizing no one can predict. Jobs just aren’t all that reliable.
When asked about the specific reasons for their decision to locate their facility at the Banks, General Electric executives stressed it wasn’t the cheapest site. They picked it because of quality of life issues like walkability, the streetcar, and lots of fun stuff to do in the city center, amenities that appeal to the highly skilled younger workers they hope to attract. These were also the same reasons my husband and I decided to move downtown five years ago, parks and bike paths and transit options that improve the lives of all our residents for years to come.
Let’s hold our for-profit developers to a higher standard than the number of jobs their Return on Investment studies claim when they submit their proposals. If we are going to forgo income taxes and property taxes, if middle-class taxpayers are going to pick-up those costs for basic services, let’s make sure our for-profit developers are adding to the quality of life of our communities in very concrete ways that are sure things. Every tax break we offer, every carrot we dangle, has to be tied to the creation of kick-ass amenities that make Cincinnati the kind of place nobody ever wants to leave.
This is an exciting time to be a part of this beautiful city. Looks like we might actually start to reverse the 41% decline in population we’ve experienced since 1950 to our present day total of 297,517 residents. A thriving metropolis with rising property values depends on people to shop in locally owned stores, eat in our locally-owned restaurants, attend our churches, volunteer in communities, start small businesses, and raise their kids here. Population is the only number that counts.
So, Come on Cincinnati. Let’s plaster that number on billboards, “297,517” Print it on t-shirts. “297,517” Enquirer, Business Courier, Streetvibes, City Beat and the Herald. say it loud and say it proud on the front of every masthead until nobody has to ask what it means anymore. Mayor, get those digits out front on the homepage. Throw a countdown party every year when the new census results come out (Sounds like a job for the Commissioner of Fun to me.). Community Councils, compete with each other for the biggest percentage gain in population at the annual Neighborhood Summit. We all need to work together on this.
Because the lifeblood of a city is not its income tax. The lifeblood of a city is the people who call it home and care so much they can’t imagine anywhere else they’d rather live. If we get that number moving in the right direction, everything else will follow.