Yesterday was a big day in Cincinnati. Bigger than Opening Day. Bigger than the Flying Pig or Taste of Cincinnati or even when Carol Ann’s Carousel in Smale Riverfront Park takes its first spin later this month. Yesterday at 1pm in City Council Chambers, the Budget & Finance Committee called a special meeting for a full review of the city’s use of development incentives like the Tax Increment Financing that was used for Great American Tower and the Job Creation Tax Credits that helped us lure GE to town. The handful of us who came to observe got to witness a miracle.
What we saw was a genuine and heartfelt desire by Council Members and administration to critically examine how we are making development decisions and measure their effectiveness. This is no easy task and requires a kind of moral integrity that transcends any individual political or professional career. Participants clearly want to make sure that future development policy is both transparent and fair.
Chris Seelbach articulated his frustration with the current process saying that the primary problem is one of communication between Trade & Development and City Council. “The information has been handed to us as we sat down to vote.” These projects can involve hundreds of millions of dollars, are extraordinarily complicated and involve huge risk. As soon as I started to look at them in detail, I knew there was no way our elected representatives could possibly understand what they were voting on, especially on an emergency basis when there can be 500 pages in a single agenda on a dozen different projects.
Oscar Bedolla, the new director of Trade & Development, has only been in Cincinnati for 6 months and he arrived to find himself in the middle of a controversy he did not create. But it’s his job to fix it. His recommendation is that the city pay for a consultant to do a thorough, independent review. He’s right. This is important stuff and we should invest whatever time and money is necessary to improve how we make these expensive decisions that are a permanent part of our city for generations to come. Anything less is penny-wise, pound foolish.
One of the most encouraging aspects of yesterday’s public conversation was the emphasis on our “underwriting values” – what kinds of projects do we want to support as a city? When is it appropriate for government to get involved? Are we building the kind of community we want to live in, one that provides benefits to more than the handful of direct beneficiaries of a private project? The scary thing about incentives is that they work. We better be sure we are paying for the kind of place where we want to live. As Vice Mayor Mann observed, “How are we going to use these tools? We want to make sure we aren’t giving everything to everybody.”
Everybody in that room yesterday added something important. Yvette Simpson focused on Council’s responsibility for oversight as “the people who direct the city and shape its future.” Kevin Flynn reiterated the concern of all the elected officials when he emphasized how important it is to “make sure we are never ‘rubber-stamping.” Even Christopher Smitherman (after he finished with his obligatory slam at the streetcar) had a good idea. He wants to see a map that shows every single incentive the city has used.
It’s important to be clear about one other fact: There are problems with how we use incentives in Cincinnati, but there are no villains in this story. Nobody did anything on purpose. Not Council members, past or present. Not developers. And certainly not the honest, hard-working, talented city employees who show up for work everyday in the Department of Trade & Development and do their best under the difficult circumstances of changing political ideologies and constant budget cuts. The reality of current process is that we just kind of let it happen over the years. With the amount of development exploding in this city, it’s crucial for us to now be very thoughtful about how we are investing in our future.
April 30, 2015 was cincyopolis’ goal since the first post appeared a year ago: a new conversation about building our city, one that is open, honest, and engages more of us in the process. Yesterday democracy worked because the people we elected to represent our interests listened. What an incredible time to be a part of Cincinnati.