City Layoffs Cause a Fury

But maybe the cops won’t be missed

By Paul Kopp

Contributing Writer

Impending budget deficits for the city of Cincinnati will lead to the loss of hundreds of city jobs this month. A plan proposed by City Manager Milton Dohoney contains 319 layoffs, including 138 police officers.

The job cuts, prompted by projected deficits of $28 million this year and $40 million or more for 2010, are schedule to take effect Sept. 6.

In an Aug. 5 memo to the mayor and city council, Dohoney called the layoffs “gut-wrenching” but necessary. With 80 percent of the city’s expenses going to personnel costs, trying to close the deficit gap leaves few options, he said.

“The only other option would be new money coming from somewhere to cover the expenses,” Dohoney said. “At this point our expenses exceed our revenue.”

The city hasn’t faced this type of budget crisis since the early 1980s. While the budget crunch reflects the national recession, Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls says some council decisions exacerbated the problem. For example, police and fire budgets have gone up 37.1 percent since 2000, including 6 percent increases in personnel costs, she says.

Cincinnati’s financial problems aren’t unique, according to Meg Olberding, spokeswoman for the city manager.

“ABC News reported that over 69 cities across the country are seeking concessions or furloughs for their employees,” she says. “The city budget is based on the private-sector economy, and it is not going well. This is part of the economic process that happens with government.”

Prostitutes’ power grab?

Dohoney’s plan sparked a public outcry. Amid booing by a crowd at council’s Aug. 5 meeting, Mayor Mark Mallory denied council members the opportunity to discuss the layoffs. Council members Leslie Ghiz and Chris Monzel then called a special council meeting the following night at the Duke Energy Center.

The mood at the meeting was tense, and the large conference hall was filled. Some people held protest signs; one said, “Mallory’s leadership is as bad as is his pitching” – a reference to his ceremonial first pitch at a Reds game, which was mocked on national TV.

Sharon Lewis of Westwood, wearing a large campaign button supporting Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, suggested eliminating “duplicate social services” jobs. She said to Mallory, “You have to have a bodyguard, so we need police.” The comment prompted loud applause from the audience.

Police officers and supporters told council that laying off 138 will make the city less safe.

“Just wait until these cuts are made,” said Kim Evans, a member of Citizens on Patrol. “The drug dealers and prostitutes are saying they are going to run this city.”

But Dohoney and Police Chief Tom Streicher Jr. have said that the number of officers assigned to neighborhood patrols won’t change.

Though council spent a large part of the meeting listening to comments from the public, Chris Smitherman, president of the Cincinnati Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an outspoken critic of city policies, says the meeting was only a platform for council to promote their own agendas.

“The selfishness in calling the emergency meeting is not to show that they care what the public thinks,” Smitherman says. “It’s really to wash their hands of the city manager’s layoff recommendations because he is not an elected official, but it’s an election year for council.”

Vice Mayor David Crowley says some of his colleagues see an opportunity for demagoguery.

“(The police officers at the special meeting) were a ready-made audience for a position that says, ‘I’ll keep your job no matter what.’ Well, the ‘no matter what’ is coming back to bite us in the ass,” Crowley says. “While it may be good political staging to make those type of comments, it’s not realistic, it’s not right and it’s misleading.”

The chief isn’t complaining

Crowley is referring to a faction on council who want to find a way to prevent any police layoffs while also not increasing taxes. The group includes Ghiz, Monzel, Jeff Berding and Christopher Bortz. Both Crowley and Qualls say they have yet to hear any plan from the faction.

“I think it is an absolutely ridiculous position,” Crowley says. “I don’t understand it. There’s a lot of politics in this. The fact is that Streicher has not come forward to the manager and said he has to keep these 138 officers. Some people will say that there are other places in the police department that (Streicher) can cut from, and if he did make those cuts, he would be able to keep some of the officers. To the best of my knowledge he has not come forth and said he is willing to cut anything else. I think (Streicher) is saying, ‘All right, they’re going to take them away from me, we’ll lose them.”

Streicher didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

Streicher doesn’t seem to perceive the police layoffs as a threat to public safety, according to Qualls.

“The number of police officers that are scheduled to be laid off is the exact number that council has added since 2000, which Chief Streicher has publicly said in the past he did not need,” Qualls says.

Qualls says Mallory and the city administration are negotiating with unions to try to save some jobs.

“It is very clear that the layoffs can be prevented if the bargaining units agree to six furlough days, and in some instances (waive) the cost-of-living increase, but those discussions are still ongoing,” she says.

The layoffs will go into effect Sept. 6, so the decisions must be made by then, Qualls says.

Olberding says she doesn’t think the city manager’s office will find a way to save those jobs.

“The 138 police officers have received their notices, and barring any action, their jobs will be eliminated on Sept. 6,” she says.

Berding and Councilman Greg Harris agreed to phone interviews but didn’t call, didn’t return messages and didn’t answer e-mails from a reporter. Council members Laketa Cole, Bortz, Ghiz, and Monzel didn’t respond to interview requests via e-mail. An assistant to Councilman Cecil Thomas said Thomas was on vacation.