Cranley, At The Mid-Point Of His Term, Has Ambitious Plans For 2016

Dec 31, 2015

Mayor John Cranley presiding over council meeting
Credit Jay Hanselman

  Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley has reached the halfway point of his four-year term; and he says he most certainly plans to run for a second term in 2015.

The first two years have been a roller coaster ride for the 41-year-old mayor – a series of setbacks and victories, sometimes creating allies and often creating opponents with what his critics see as  bull-headed, my-way-or-the-highway approach to governing.

He had barely taken office in Dec. 2013 when he was dealt a major blow. The mayoral candidate who had campaigned against the streetcar project had council members turn against him; and the project – which now has a price tag of $148 million – went ahead and is slated to be up and running in September.

And, in November of this year, Cranley was slapped down by Cincinnati voters when he pushed for Issue 22, a permanent tax levy for park maintenance and new projects that was put on the ballot as a charter amendment. It was defeated soundly, with 58 percent voting no; and Cranley, a few days later, wrote a mea culpa guest column in the Enquirer saying he got the message loud and clear and would listen to the voters more closely in the future.

But, Cranley told WVXU, despite the Issue 22 setback, “which was obviously a bummer,” he believes he has “set the stage very successfully over the last two years for the city’s priorities.”

And what are those priorities?

“I think we were clearly elected on a platform of safety and infrastructure, of basic services, of expanding economic inclusion to African-American women and Hispanics, of building up the neighborhoods and providing opportunity to the less fortunate,” Cranley said. “I think we have made enormous progress in those areas over the first two years.”

Recently, WVXU talked with Cranley in his City Hall office for nearly an hour, as he outlined what he wants the next two years to look like as he heads into a re-election campaign.

Here’s what he had to say on a variety of subjects:

The Streetcar:

It is set to begin operating in September on a loop route from Findlay Market to the riverfront.

But it is something Cranley opposed from the start and campaigned against it.

He thought at the beginning of his term that he could stop it, but, in the end, he didn’t have the votes on council to stop it.

Cranley said people are mistaken if they believe he wants the streetcar project to fail.

“Absolutely not, I want it to succeed,’’ Cranley said.

The streetcar will be delivered “on time and on budget,’’ he said.

“I think it was not a wise use of an enormous amount of tax dollars but I got out-voted on that, so I have to try to make the best of it,” Cranley said.

That, he said, is why he has been trying to get Metro and city council to extend the hours of operation for the streetcar.

Sometime early in the year, council will have to come up with an operating budget for the streetcar; and City Manager Harry Black has expressed concern that the plans being discussed would require general fund money.

Cranley said ridership will determine whether or not the operating budget can be sustained.

“I can’t forecast what the ridership will be and the proof will be in the pudding, but it’s a very expensive endeavor,” Cranley said.

As for a Phase 2 that would extend the streetcar to the Uptown area and connect it with the University of Cincinnati and the hospitals, Cranley said that’s not practical at this point.

“We can’t do a Phase 2 unless we know if Phase 1 is a success,’’ Cranley said. “I have no idea where the money would come from for a Phase 2. It’s certainly not going to come from our road-paving budget. I think that is a more important priority for most people than expanding the streetcar.”

The city plans to spend another $14 million this year to continue road improvements and replace worn-out vehicles in the city fleet.

He had a suggestion for those who want to expand the streetcar.

“You know, when I had some new ideas like the park tax, I put it on the ballot and asked the voters and abided by the decision,’’ said Cranley, referring to Issue 22, a permanent tax levy for the parks that was soundly defeated by the voters in November.

“I think the streetcar supporters, if they want to keep it going; they should ask for a tax and let the voters decide if that’s what they want,’’ Cranley said.

Policing and Reducing Gun Violence:

In January and February, Cranley, City Manager Harry Black, and Chief Eliot Isaac, who became the city’s 15th police chief on Dec. 10, will attend community forums in each of the city’s five police districts to talk with – and listen to – citizens about crime and gun violence in their neighborhoods.

Isaac replaced Chief Jeffrey Blackwell, who was fired by Black for cause. Blackwell was said to have hurt morale in the Cincinnati Police Department badly with his management style, but was given high marks for maintaining community relations.

Isaac has vowed to carry that one; and Cranley said the public meetings are a good start.

“First and foremost, the meetings are important for giving people who are fighting for their neighborhoods a chance to be heard,’’ Cranley said.

Cincinnati has seen a marked rise in gun violence in 2015. Cranley said reducing that trend is one of the top priorities of the new police chief and the administration.

But, he said, it could be worse.

“Our goal is always to reduce the shootings by 10 percent a year,” Cranley said. “But the lay of the land across the country is that homicides and shootings are up in every major city that has demographics anywhere near ours.

“St. Louis or Baltimore or Cleveland or Chicago or Milwaukee - they are just getting an unbelievable number of shootings,’’ Cranley said. “Chicago is off the charts.

“We’ve experienced the rise in shootings in 2015. Our has not risen as fast as many of the other cities, but it’s still rising, Cranley said. “And that is not much consolation to a family victim to know that we’re not getting as bad as other cities.”

But Cranley said he believes the civil unrest the city went through in April 2001 after an unarmed 19-year-old black man was shot to death by a white police officer in Over-the-Rhine ultimately led to a better situation when it comes to police-community relations. The collaborative agreement that was put in place led to community-oriented policing, which most agree reduced some, although not all, of the tensions between African-American residents and the police.

“I do think that one of the big differences between us and those other cities is that those cities are going through the tension between the police and the community that we went through 14 years ago and are not going through right now,’’ Cranley said.

“Not that we’re perfect, but we have made huge progress,’’ Cranley said.

Cranley said that most mayors who are experiencing an explosion in violent crime are dealing with “a two-front war – a rising number of shootings and very little trust between the community and police.

“I wouldn’t trade places with any of them even though I still believe we have an unacceptably high number of shootings and violence,’’ Cranley said. “But I know that we have the police and the community together. The civil rights leaders who were marching on City Hall 14 years ago against the cops – now they are walking arm-in-arm, literally, with our cops in our neighborhoods to stop the violence.”

The mayor said he is proud of the fact that there are now 100 more police officers on the street since he took office, with more on the way.

Child poverty:  

In his state of the city address in October, Cranley spoke at some length about his creation of a task force with the goal of lifting 10,000 children out of poverty over the next five years.

In December, he chose someone to head the effort – Lynn Marmer, a retired Kroger executive who is also a former member of the Cincinnati Board of Education.

Cincinnati now has about 38,000 children living below the federal poverty line. Local officials admit it is a huge and unacceptable number, but it is one that has been going down in recent years. About 44 percent of the children of Cincinnati now live in poverty, down from the 53 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey.

Cranley told WVXU he sees the child poverty initiative working with his “Hand-Up Initiative,” an anti-poverty program that is operating now and has the goal of reducing the city’s overall poverty rate by five percent over four years.

There are many agencies and individuals working on the problem throughout the city, Cranley said.

The task force, which is supposed to report back to the mayor by June, “is a way of bringing them all together. You have a lot of different groups talking about the same thing and I said we have to stop all these over-lapping conversations and put something together.”

That something is the task force, with a 35-member steering committee.

Cranley said he recently spent two days interviewing potential consultants who could be hired to help with public outreach and policies designed to attack the problem of child poverty.

“Where will this all end up?,” Cranley said. “I think it will literally be a specific, actionable road map that I think has a reasonableness to it that says this can be done. But it can only be done if there is the political will and the private sector to accomplish it.”

Cranley said his plan is to see 5,000 adults lifted above the poverty line.

“The average one of those adults has two kids,’’ Cranley said. “That is 10,000 children lifted above the poverty level.”

Cranley estimates it would take somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million to $7 million to achieve the goal.

“Can a community as rich as ours figure out how to come up with an additional $6 million a year?,’’ Cranley said. “I think the answer is yes.”

It would, the mayor said, be a public-private partnership.

“If the answer the task force comes up with is $6 million a year, I think we can get that done,’’ Cranley said. “Now, if the answer is $20 million a year, that’s obviously a much tougher nut to crack.”

Cranley believes “the end game” to this program would be a reduction of child poverty “somewhere in the low 30s.”

“This is obviously way too high, but to the 10,000 kids and 5,000 adults we helped it won’t seem so small,” Cranley said.

Cranley said one of the ideas he would like to see implemented is a local match for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

“You take a single mother with one child; she’s working a minimum wage job and she gets about $2,000 for the EITC,’’ Cranley said. “That gets her to $18,000. If we could find a way to match that, she’d be at $20,000 and could get above the poverty line.”

There will also have to be some “behavioral investments” by the people living in poverty, Cranley said, such as getting a GED and job training so they could have a chance at finding better paying jobs.

Cranley said that, in January, his office will announce a series a community forums where members of the public who want to become involved in the child poverty effort can do so.

Vetoes:

Since Cincinnati adopted the direct election of the mayor in 2001 and gave the mayor new power, including the veto, there have been three elected mayors, all Democrats: Charlie Luken, Mark Mallory, and, for the past two years, Cranley.

The mayor’s veto power has been used only 12 times since Dec. 2001; and seven of those came from the pen of Cranley over the past year.

His vetoes included:

-   an Over-the-Rhine parking plan (although that came back recently and was approved by a veto-proof majority of council),

-   a proposed charter amendment that would have allowed council to hold executive sessions

-   and five items in the present budget - $400,000 for the proposed Clifton Market, $275,000 to increase personnel operating accounts in the Community Health and Environmental Services office and maternal and infant health programs within the Health Department, an additional $150,000 for additional bike lane maintenance, $24,000 for a new bus shelter on Reading Road in Bond Hill, and a three-month moratorium on the plan to improve roads and replace aging city vehicles.

Cranley said most of his vetoes were part of his pledge to produce a structurally sound budget. And, he said, he will do it again, if need be.

“I think what people can expect is that we are committed to getting our fiscal house in order and I intend to use the veto to keep spending in check,’’ Cranley said. “I’m hopeful that council and I can work budgets out so that won’t be necessary. If they decide to start spending money we don’t have – well, we’ll see more vetoes.”

The next city budget:

In mid-December, City Manager Harry Black sent a memo to Cranley and council members predicting a nearly $14 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The city manager said the deficit is mostly due to increases in public safety expenses and the repayment of the estate tax due to a previous collection error.

Black said the public safety increase is due to funding a new fire recruit class without a federal SAFER grant, additional fire overtime due to ending brownouts, increasing emergency communications  center staffing, funding the new police recruit class.

“Yes, there will be a deficit to deal with, but that’s not going to come at the expense of police and fire service,’’ Cranley said. “There’s no chance we are going to go out there threatening police and fire layoffs. In fact, we are going to continue to hire. Obviously, you have to do that at an attrition rate.”

Cranley said he expects to add 20 new police officers this year, and continue to add “on a replacement basis as officers retire.”

Cuts to balance the budget, Cranley said, will have to come from elsewhere. Black said in his memo that if police and fire are exempted from budget reductions, there will be a 10 percent across-the-board reduction for all other departments.