Friday, April 3, 1998
Uncommon foresight seen in Amberley

The Cincinnati Enquirer

This week's good government award goes to Amberley Village.

When Gibson Greetings sent the village a goodbye card Tuesday, there was no panic, no hurriedly called press conference to declare Amberley was shocked, saddened and now desperate for tax dollars. Instead, when Gibson said it will close its plant, eventually idling 480 workers and costing Amberley 20-25 percent of its income,village officials calmly announced that everything was under control. They had anticipated the closing - for 10 years, it turns out - and took the initiative to plan accordingly.

Amberley has enough money in the bank to cover the tax losses for at least five years. ''And maybe eight,'' Councilman Mel Schear told me.

Mr. Schear continues to look ahead, noting he and his colleagues hope to secure the financial future of the village now that Gibson is leaving. ''We're not going to let it linger for another council to handle.''

All this while the folks in Washington are still struggling to balance a budget that's been bleeding red for several administrations. The way the village's council - with the approval of its citizens - saved for a rainy day left me mightily impressed. They didn't pass the buck. They solved a potential problem before it even existed. I wish we could bottle the Amberley officials' foresight and sense of responsibility and send a batch to other elected leaders in city halls and legislatures we all know too well.

Decade ahead

The seeds of the village's 1998 success were sown in 1988.

Amberley officials knew the village coffers were overly dependent on Gibson. ''They were our biggest customer,'' recalled Gloria Haffer, Amberley's mayor in 1988. ''We had to protect ourselves if they went out of business or moved.''

She had seen what happened to Norwood when that city lost its GM plant in 1987. ''We didn't want to see the village in a similar position.''

To prevent that, the mayor and Councilman Dean Fite, a retired Procter & Gamble executive, crafted a levy in 1988 to double the village's earnings tax from 1 percent to 2 percent. During the campaign, they made no bones about where the extra money would go.

''It was more money than we needed to operate the village,'' the former mayor said. ''We were building up a surplus. Just in case.'' She called former Councilman Fite ''the genius behind this. He's a financial wizard.''

Mr. Fite declined the honor. ''It was just my P&G training coming out.''

Working in the financial end of the P&G empire, he learned ''good money management, which tells you to put something aside for when the good times turn bad. In business, that's how you prosper.'' In government, that's how you lose elections. One line of thinking says taxpayers like immediate gratification. They want their tax dollars spent on them, not future generations. Sensitive to voter wrath, politicians tend not to plan very far ahead. As nature abhors a vacuum, politicians hate a surplus.

Amberley Village officials think differently. And so did their constituents. The 1988 tax levy increase passed with 71 percent of the vote.

Pass it on

Village officials decided not to let the future sneak up on them. They made plans. I wish more of the world were like Amberley.

The village's government also stands out for its dedication. Council members get paid only $300 a year. (In 1999, their annual salary jumps to a whopping $1,200.)

They have other jobs. They don't live to be re-elected. And, they don't see themselves as politicians.

''We're public servants,'' said former Mayor Haffer.

''We treat government as a business,'' said Councilman Schear. ''It's the business of the people.''

Amberley functions the way democracy was designed to work. It is government of, by and for the people.

The village's council knows what the people want. By governing wisely and well, it cares for today while planning carefully for tomorrow.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.