Concerned Hamilton County citizens packed into the Drake Center on Wednesday night for the County Commissioner's second public hearing to discuss the proposed 2009 Budget for Hamilton County. The seating options were quickly exhausted as the start of the hearing approached and by the time the President of the Board, Todd Portune, called the hearing to order at 6:39PM people were standing three-deep against the back wall and other were still struggling to get in.
Commissioner Portune opened the hearing by summarizing the goals of the Board in adopting a budget for 2009 and the goals of the public hearings. Portune stated that the Board's adopted goals are to balance the budget, reduce crime, and enhance the quality of life in Hamilton County. He acknowledged grave challenges during these times of economic hardship, and stressed that the recommended General Fund budget is $30 million less than in 2008. Portune stated that the Board is looking at creative ways to come up with money so that they will not have to cut as many pubic services, but he stated that they will not balance the budget by issuing tax increases or new taxes on citizens of the County.
The three main areas of debate that have proved to be hot button issues with the public are the decrease in Sheriff and Deputy patrols and their subsequent transference of cost to townships, the closure of the Queensgate Jail, and the severity in the number of layoffs of County employees and the effect this will have on the services that these agencies will be able to provide. These main areas of contention were evident by the presence of numerous uniformed members of the Sheriff's Office at the hearing and the overall number of people who waited to address the Board of Commissioners.
Administrator Patrick Thompson stated just prior to the public taking the floor, "This is not a feel good budget and many recommendations are unprecedented, but there is no precedent for these times."
The next two hours proved not to be a "feel good" time for the Commissioners as speaker after speaker stepped up to the microphone to voice their opposition to the cuts that are being proposed for 2009. Members of the Sheriff's Office and their families were a large percentage of those who spoke over the course of the two and a half hour meeting and while many acknowledged that these are trying economic times, the Officers opposed cutting money from patrols citing concerns about public safety. "Your actions have kept the bad guys out of jail and kept the good guys out of work," stated a Corporal from the Sheriff's Office. Another Deputy stated, "If you go through with those cuts, you will prove you are not tough on crime, but tough on crime fighters."
Also making a noticeable presence at the hearing were members of the Hamilton County Job and Family Services (JFS). Suhitha Wickrema, an employee of JFS, was first to speak and raised concerns about how cutting jobs at his agency would affect the of the services that they provide. "In August of 2008, there were 85,000 individuals receiving food stamps," Wickrema stated, "This is an increase of 6% from the same period in 2007." Wickrema argued that it is statistics like these that prove why the JFS budget should be increased as opposed to being cut. Later in the meeting, another JFS worker, who had just been laid off after 14 years and five months of service, took the floor. She told stories of other co-workers that have shared her own fate. She spoke of a recently laid off JFS employee who has two special needs children and will more than likely need to benefit from the services that JFS provides, the same services that she provided to others prior to her job loss. The speaker also told of the story of a JFS employee who had been employed for 29 years and two months and who was recently told to pack her belongings in a box and leave the building in a half hour. This woman was ten months away from retirement.
One of the most lively exchanges of the evening was when Kathy King stepped up to the microphone and asked the Board to correct her if she wrong on the points that she wanted to make. She asked how the Board justifies increasing their own expenditures while the County is being asked to cut back and she asked why Administrator Patrick Thompson apparently gets bonuses for laying people off. This elicited a response from Todd Portune, "No ma'am," responded Portune to the latter question. A few people shouted out from the crowd as King fired back, "How about for cutting costs?" Portune responded, "There are performance clauses in Mr. Thompson's contract..." at this point the crowd in the room began to shout at the Board, drowning out Portune's response. After Portune called for order and the crowd quieted down, he finished his response and insisted that the insinuation that Patrick Thompson benefits financially from cutting County jobs, is false.
As this second public hearing came to a close and as the final hearing approaches next Wednesday, it is clear that the public is largely unsatisfied and very frustrated with the 2009 Proposed Budget. The County Commissioners hold one final public hearing next Wednesday at which the goal will be to consider a recommended budget. The Board has until December 31 to pass the 2009 budget and Commissioner Portune stated that they plan on adopting a budget on either December 12 or December 22. It seems that with only a maximum of a few weeks that remain for public comment on the proposed budget, there is little time to find a solution that will generate the type of revenue that will allow the County to refrain from cutting the services that the public does not want cut. With such little time left, it will be important to hear from those who have yet to make their voice heard on these issues. There is one final public hearing remaining. The information regarding this final hearing is below:
Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at 6:30 p.m.
Cincinnati State Technical and Community College
3520 Central Parkway
Cincinnati, Ohio 45223-2690
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