Thursday, December 11, 2008

Third Public Hearing on 2009 Budget Shows the Public Frustrated and Upset at Proposed Cuts

The third and final public hearing on the 2009 proposed budget for Hamilton County was held last night at Cincinnati State and Technical College. The Conference Center was packed with concerned citizens, employees of the Sheriff's Department, and employees of Hamilton County Job and Family Services (JFS). Almost every speaker raised objections to the proposed cuts in the areas of public safety, public services, and to the Queensgate Jail which would lead to its closure.

Commissioner Todd Portune called the meeting to order at 6:35PM and opened with comments outlining the process of considering the budget and laying out the ground rules for those who wished to give public comment. This was followed by an hour and a half of speakers who shared their concerns and solutions to the proposed budget. Making their presence known in large numbers for the third straight meeting were members of the Sheriff's Department and their families. These individuals raised concerns over cuts in public safety and the proposed closure of the Queensgate jail facility.

Corporal Michael Steers was the first of the evening to comment. He told the Commissioners that closing Queensgate will embolden crime and result in an exodus of Hamilton County residents to the perceived "safer" neighboring counties of Warren and Butler. Steers went on to speak about those in the Sheriff's Office whose job is on the line and then promised the Commissioners: "If you fail to act, we all will work tirelessly to make sure you join all those on the unemployment line." This comment received a thirty second standing ovation from the crowd, the largest crowd outburst of the night.

Many other officers took the floor, echoing the concerns of Steers and raising the issue of just how safe citizens of Hamilton County will be if such cuts in public safety are implemented. Rebecca Schweitzer, a mother of 3 police officers, echoed this sentiment begging the Commissioners not to take away resident's "front door" of safety.

Also present at this final public hearing were employees of the Hamilton County JFS and citizens concerned with a cut in funding to a so-called social safety net. According to one employee from the agency, 178 employees of JFS have already been laid off and up to another 180 are expected to be laid off between now and 2010. Local author and community activist Dan LaBotz spoke about such concerns and urged the Commissioners to join with other counties throughout the State to request Federal dollars to fully fund services like those provided by JFS. LaBotz argued that since JFS is first in line to provide social welfare, they should be fully funded during times of economic hardship when the public will be relying on these services the most. "This is a moment in history to be in the streets and to get your unions active," LaBotz said, "Unions were created to fight for the workers." LaBotz even floated the idea of a sit-in by the employees of JFS (similar to the sit-in this last week by Chicago employees) in order to get the results that will benefit the public.

After the period of public comment concluded, each Commissioner gave their comments and hinted at some recommendations that they would be proposing to amend the proposed budget. Commissioner Pat DeWine read off a list of areas from which he believes money can be reallocated to lessen the blow to cuts in public safety. This list included reallocating money away from the Chamber of Commerce, development of new small business centers, and the elimination of the receptionist position in their own office. DeWine claims his recommendations will add up to $3.2 million in money that can be used toward lessening the blow to public safety. Regarding the closure of the Queensgate facility, DeWine stated that there are legal questions as to whether the County can even get out of the lease for the property, so it may be necessary to put off closing the facility so that the County is not paying for a building that is not in use.

Commissioner David Pepper echoed many of the ideas put forth by DeWine including not taking on any new business development funds at a time when public safety programs are under such a threat of being cut. Pepper responded to those who raised objections to the staff levels of the Commissioners and the overall sacrifice of the Commissioners by saying that they have taken a "hacksaw to the 6th Floor" and that they would continue to make cuts on their end to share the sacrifice. Pepper also suggested a ten day furlough for the Commissioners and even opening up the websites of the County to house web advertisements from local business to raise extra revenue. Pepper thanked members of unions who were present at the meeting and who spoke on behalf of their employees. "We have some members of AFSCME here," Pepper said referring to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees who represent employees of the Hamilton County JFS. No one that spoke at this hearing however, identified themselves as either a member of AFSCME or as a leader of AFSCME speaking on behalf of employees at JFS. As has been reported previously, it appears that employees of JFS have tried to organize greater support on their own, but have yet to receive much help in organizing from AFSCME. I have contacted the Regional Director of AFSCME, Peter McLinden, to answer some questions about these issues, but he has not responded at the time of this article.

Commissioner Todd Portune closed the hearing with his own comments and directly addressed those concerned with the cuts to the JFS workforce and to the public services that JFS provides. Portune stated that all three Commissioners have been lobbying hard with both the State and Federal Government regarding the County's All-Funds budget, but that Gov. Strickland has announced another $700 million in cuts that will make it difficult for JFS to be funded. "For those who have asked us to do more in that area, we are doing what we can to stop the bleeding, but when our General Fund is down $30 million we can't replace the JFS funding with General Fund dollars," Portune stated, "There is a sense of inevitability to some of these cuts." Portune did speak of his meetings with Building and Trade Union leadership and announced that they have agreed to re-open contracts, forgo raises, and accept furloughs to lessen cuts. Portune is calling on all unions, including AFSCME, to follow suit. "My concern on layoffs is that the amount of layoffs would negatively affect the County's economic development." Portune stated. Portune also called for each agency to post a list of employees who have been laid off and who would have not been laid off but for the cuts in the proposed budget. Portune suggests that these lists could be used to re-call employees once the economy rebounds.

The Board of Commissioners expects to adopt a 2009 budget next week and will be posting their recommendations to the current proposed budget on the Hamilton County website sometime today. Unanimous passage is what the Commissioners are hoping for, but the budget will be passed by majority if necessary.

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