Wednesday, April 14, 1999

Let's spotlight spending by local officials

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Thursday is tax deadline day. So tonight is the night I hold my nose, open my checkbook and send an ungodly amount of MY money to various government bodies.

        Every year, I swear I'm going to stick in a note with my checks asking: What did you do with the tax money I sent you last year?

        But I always chicken out. Government can scare you sometimes.

        This year is going to be different.

        Throughout 1999 I intend to do a series of “Follow-our-Money” columns tracking what local, state and federal money spenders do with our tax dollars.

        Want to help? Please pass along your questions, tips or complaints about questionable government spending.

        I'm especially interested in your tips and ideas related to state and local government, as those are often cases where you and I might have the best chance of making a big difference. Washington is not out of bounds. Just a longer shot. Think local and act now.

        Case in point: Cincinnati City Council's recent collection of pet projects tacked onto the 1999-2000 budget. One among several questionable uses of our tax dollars is Jeanette Cissell's request for $40,000 to establish a fitness center for kids.

        It's an example of government spending on a poorly researched idea that may or may not be worth it. The fact that nobody in government really knows what they're throwing our money at is the real problem.

Poor research
        The proposal that the citizens of Cincinnati help pay for fitness training and weight reduction for kids began last fall with a TV show.

        “It was 60 Minutes or Dateline,” Councilwoman Cissell told me. She saw a segment about a Chicago fitness center for overweight kids and thought “it was a really neat idea.”

        Jeanette Cissell is a nice person, and she meant well with the proposal. But adequate research doesn't seem to be her strong suit. She called the center featured on TV and asked officials to fax some information. Armed with “four or five pages” of brochure-grade articles and descriptions of the facility, she placed a $40,000 item on the budget proposal. It was one of 48 items adding up to $14.6 million in additional expenditures. That amount was tacked onto the city's 1999-2000 budget of $1.8 billion.

        The $14.6 million in extra projects, including the $40,000 for the “Children's Health and Executive Club,” was approved in January.

        Once approved, the $40,000 plan was taken up by the Recreation Commission. That department identified potential sites and estimated it would cost $20,000 to renovate or lease a building, and $67,255 to staff it.

        So, at this point, the $40,000 idea for the “Children's Health and Executive Club” has now ballooned into a $127,255 idea. Money-wise, the project has taken on a life of its own.

Tips welcome
        Call me old-fashioned, but I believe government should spend our money wisely. That means before funding is granted, or even requested, research should be conducted documenting the specific need for a program, what services already exist and some idea of how the money will help. What are we buying and how much will it cost?

        In the case of our city's rapidly fattening “Children's Health and Executive Club,” what is the problem this is designed to fix?

        Parents, not city government, should make sure kids are fit. And they can use city parks, playgrounds and gyms to do it. We don't need to spend this money. We already spend money that can help parents and kids achieve the same results.

        I know some kids don't get the best parenting. And I do believe that we, as a community, need to help our own. But with this idea we are duplicating efforts. And to what end? How will we know whether the money spent is a success? Accountability is another basic when it comes to government spending.

        Want to get involved? On this project, call Councilwoman Cissell, or anyone else at City Hall who will listen, at 352-3000.

        Still want to get involved? Send me your ideas, complaints and tips on questionable government spending. And we can spend the coming months following our money together.

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

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