Monday, April 10, 2000

Politics in budget is problem

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        John Shirey could lose his job this week. Cincinnati's City Council has the power to evaluate the beleaguered city manager and then fire him in mid-April.

        Before the city manager's nine bosses on council give him a performance review, they should review their own performance. They will find council is to blame for many of the problems being dumped on the city manager.

        John Shirey is in the hot seat for poor accountability, sloppy bookkeeping and inadequate oversight in various city departments under his authority. Investigations are under way to determine if hundreds of thousands of tax dollars were squandered on the city-funded ventures of Owning the Realty, Genesis Redevelopment and the African American Chamber of Commerce.

        City Council created these problems by injecting politics into the city budget. Council approved spending on pet projects favoring special interests.

        Playing and paying favorites with the public's money hearkens back to the days, 80 years ago, when political dinosaurs called bosses ran cities like Cincinnati.

        In 1924, Cincinnati threw out its corrupt, boss-run system and became known as the home of good government. Before another form of bossism takes hold, council needs to clean up its act. Leave politics out of the budget. Let the city manager do his job. And bring in watchdogs to keep this from happening again.

Pet projects
        For the 1999-2000 budget, council ignored the city manager's objections and tacked on $14.6 million in pet projects. One item provided $300,000 for the African American Chamber of Commerce.

        To receive money, the chamber presented lists of expenses to the city. One list was handwritten, consisting of four lines and seven words asking for $95,000.

        Former Councilman Tyrone Yates told me last week “certain members of council” promoted “this political featherbedding.” They pressured the city administration “to be flexible with these groups.” Criminal activities were not condoned. But, the council members reminded bureaucrats under the city manager's control, these groups were part of “a grass-roots effort serving the community. They're not likely to cross every "t' or dot every "i.'”

        Making such allowances allowed for problems to develop. Now, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been distributed to groups who have not delivered on their promises.

        These problems and their causes remind James A. Stever, head of the University of Cincinnati's political science department, of an old textbook axiom:

        “There is no excuse for playing fast and loose with the public's money.”

        Drawing on the conclusions in his book, The End of Public Administration, he thinks Cincinnati's problems can be solved with another old phrase: Butt out.

        “Council should stop micromanaging,” he said. “Stop manipulating the budget for political gain and partisan advantage. Spend money for the good of the city as a whole.”

        If council can't control itself, he suggests appointing a citizens group of budget watchdogs. This would be similar to the recently established Citizens Police Review Panel. The watchdogs would expose politics in the budget and call for strict accounting procedures. Only then will taxpayers get what they paid for and Cincinnati be able again to call itself the home of good government.

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