Monday, January 01, 2001

Portune vows to get a grip on county spending

New commissioner to be sworn in Tuesday

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        To understand the impact Todd Portune will have on the Hamilton County Commission, consider this:

        Commissioners cast 3,926 votes during the past three years — everything from routine votes to end public hearings to extraordinary votes approving stadium construction contracts — but Bob Bedinghaus and Tom Neyer never voted differently on any of those issues.

        The third commissioner, John Dowlin, cast 14 contrary votes over the same period. Many of those dealt with using county taxes to pay for developing the city's riverfront.

        Each of those issues passed, 2-1.

        That voting pattern is about to change dramatically on Tuesday, when Mr. Portune is sworn in as the first Democrat on the commission since 1968 after defeating Mr. Bedinghaus in the November election.

        Mr. Portune, portrayed by Mr. Bedinghaus and the county's Republican Party leadership as a man too liberal for the county commission during a heated campaign, says he is under a mandate from voters to be a fiscal conservative.

        Mr. Portune certainly wasn't known for his fiscal conserva tism during his seven years on Cincinnati council. But he plans to deliver on that mandate as a county commissioner.

        “The real priority is not to increase spending but to get a grip on the spending already going on, because it's out of control,” Mr. Portune said.

        He will be tested almost immediately.

  Hamilton County government is a $1.8 billion operation, with the three county commissioners the top elected officials who approve the spending.
  Here are some of the key services county government provides:
  • Riverfront development: The county got into the riverfront development business when voters approved a half-penny sales tax increase in 1996. Now the county is spending nearly $1 billion in building two riverfront stadiums, parking and related improvements to roadways, sewers and other infrastructure.
  • Social services: This includes everything from welfare reform and child support to providing food stamps and senior citizen services.
  • Public safety: Services from the sheriff, prosecutor, coroner, dog warden and emergency management all are the responsibility of the county.
  • Judicial: Ten departments, including juvenile court, court of appeals, common pleas, municipal court, probate, probation and the public defender's office.
  • Public works: Has the responsibility for most of the county's construction projects. In addition, the county engineer has responsibility for upkeep of county roads, and the Metropolitan Sewer District has to make sure sewage plants are operating properly to protect the environment.
        County administrators are negotiating a contract that would give Cincinnati 2012, Inc., the group trying to bring the Olympic Games to town, $500,000 over the next two years. Likewise, a vote is pending on a $600,000 grant for the Regional Cultural Alliance, an arts marketing group.

        Mr. Portune says he will not vote for either of those items, nor will he support any new spending initiative that will take money out of the county's general fund.

        “There's no way I'm voting in favor of Olympic spending,” Mr. Portune said. “I've told the RCA and everyone else I've talked to that now is not the time.”

        Retiring early the half-penny sales tax increase, approved by voters in 1996 to pay for stadium construction, is Mr. Portune's priority.

        He is against new general fund spending because of the fear that sales tax revenues might not be enough to pay the stadium bills. If that happens, the general fund will be needed to make up the difference, he said.

        Tim Mara believes Mr. Portune will be good to his word.

        Mr. Mara, a Cincinnati lawyer who campaigned against the sales tax increase in 1996, said at the least Mr. Portune will stop the spending spree. After all, there's no reason for a Democrat to have job security on the county commission.

        “Todd understands he was swept into office by the high tide of discontent over spending,” Mr. Mara said. “And he is correct to say there is a mandate to stop it.

        “It may be a new suit for him to wear, but I expect him to live up to that mandate. If he doesn't, he'll be out on his ear in four years.”

        Mr. Portune said he's not bringing any “pet projects” to the county for funding, but there are priorities:

        • Emergency communications: Making sure police, fire and ambulances in each of the county's subdivisions can talk to one another. The county already is building the skeleton for a system that will operate on the 800-megahertz frequency.

        • Regional transit: Providing bus routes to cities, townships and villages outside the city limits.

        • Reducing stormwater and sewer discharges to protect the environment. The Metropolitan Sewer District already is working on that problem.

        • Regional planning that will allow redevelopment of the city's inner ring of suburbs.

        “The unbridled spending on stadiums has very much put the general fund at risk,” Mr. Portune said. “But those are all issues I'll be devoting a lot of time and effort to.”

        The other priority is to open the business of county politics to the public. To that end, Mr. Portune wants the weekly staff meetings to be broadcast over cable TV access channels. He also would like the weekly commission meetings to be held in different parts of the county.

        “By doing that, we'll have forced the commission to get out in the communities it represents,” Mr. Portune said. “And the real decisions are made in Monday staff meetings. Those need to be broadcast.”

        Mr. Portune will find himself in the minority, with commissioners Dowlin and Neyer agreeing on issues more often than not. But Mr. Portune will make the critical difference as the county plows ahead with important decisions on the new Reds ballpark and other riverfront development issues.

        Gene Beaupre, a political science professor at Xavier University and political observer since the late 1960s, said Mr. Portune will have to pick his battles.

        “If all he does is go in and vote against things, then he's not moving any positive policies forward,” Mr. Beaupre said. “He'll have to work at building compromises and he'll have to do it differently than City Council.

        “I don't know how that will shake out on any given issue.”

        Neither do commissioners Neyer and Dowlin, who both said Mr. Portune coming to the board will be “interesting.”

        “There is no question the dynamic will be different, and those proposing different programs will have to expect a different type of questioning,” Mr. Neyer said.


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