Sunday, April 22, 2001

Great cities: Governance

'A wake-up call' crisis

        “We have to become a new, better Cincinnati.”        

— Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken

        Cincinnati is waking up to government reform and regional action. But many in our fragmented metro area still don't get it.

        Cincinnati's racial uprising last week demonstrated the city's acute failure to confront racial resentment after decades of reports, lawsuits and commissions charged with solving the “race problem.” City government is holding our region back, but there's plenty of blame to go around.

        Strong advances can be seen in Northern Kentucky and edge cities, such as Mason, Blue Ash and West Chester. But overall, Cincinnati is not organized for speed, competitiveness or even efficient government.

        Our Great Cities Test for governance found that Indianapolis has built up a comfortable lead over the four other major metros. Indianapolis has been blessed with capable, innovative mayors, and a 1970 merger of city and county governments led to an era of progressive strategies, including remaking itself into a center for amateur sports.

        Even Cleveland, with all its problems, is further along in creating a downtown and lakefront people want to visit. Both Columbus and Louisville are improving fast.

        The Grades: On a 10-scale for governance, we rate Indianapolis a 9, Cleveland and Columbus each 6, Cincinnati 4 and Louisville 3.

        How we compare: (Congressional Quarterly) gave Indianapolis for 2000 an overall grade of B+. Cleveland and Columbus drew C's. Phoenix scored an A and Austin an A-. Cincinnati and Louisville weren't rated, but on such indicators as “managing for results,” our score would be dismal. Well-run cities don't just measure city spending, they measure results. It took Cincinnati eight years to catch on that city crews did not repair half the roads reported fixed.

        Fragmentation: Cincinnati is a maze of 472 general and special purpose governments and school districts — most among the four metros.

        Indianapolis-Marion County can take unified action through its Unigov. Columbus annexed most of Franklin County. Last November, Louisville and Jefferson County agreed to merge by Jan. 1, 2003.

        Planning: Hamilton County alone has 50 separate planning commissions. Cincinnati is great at planning the spectacular redesign of Fort Washington Way, but planning means something strikingly different in Indianapolis, Charlotte, Phoenix and Portland, where neighborhood projects are budgeted five to 10 years ahead.

        Spending: Ohio Auditor Jim Petro reported Cincinnati topped major Ohio cities in 1997 with the highest per capita spending at $1,400. Cleveland ranked second at $1,237; Columbus, $1,137.

        Cincinnati's city earnings tax accounts for about 60 percent of its general fund, and almost half of those paying don't live in the city. City and county revenues in recent months have dropped.

        Voter turnout: Columbus and Cleveland led with November 2000 turnouts averaging 64 percent of registered voters. Cincinnati averaged 61.3 percent, Louisville 60, with Indianapolis trailing at 57.3.

        Leadership: Innovative Indianapolis mayors such as Richard Lugar, William Hudnut and Stephen Goldsmith helped transform the central city and introduce competition into city services, despite resistance from city unions and others. George Voinovich led Cleveland back from the brink after it defaulted on its debt in 1978, and Cleveland has revived.

        Cincinnati was spared a major crisis until last week's riots. Now, Charter changes are being discussed.

        Cincinnati is the only major Ohio city without control of its own Civil Service system. Council often votes along racial lines and buys votes from vocal, tax-supported groups instead of working to reverse the flight of taxpayers. This fall, voters finally will be able to directly elect a mayor who will have new powers and a veto.

        Why it matters: This city and region need leaner, more focused government to bring back middle-class taxpayers, before it can seriously expect to challenge top-ranked cities. Our region resists regional collaboration that other regions adopted years ago. The “donut effect” of a shrinking city can suck suburbs into the widening sink hole.

        What others are doing: Fast growing cities often are also the best run. Phoenix, Austin and Portland supply their decision-makers with all financial consequences for even minor projects and track results.

        Philadelphia publishes detailed annual reports and follows up with yearly public surveys.

        Nearly half of Indianapolis city spending was contracted out in 1998, and even city unions admit competition has made them more professional.

        Cincinnati doesn't track how many jobs have been lost or kept in the city or even numbers of taxpayers.

        Test: Indianapolis uses a “Yellow Pages Test”: If suppliers are listed in the Yellow Pages, the city service is bid out.

        Metro Cincinnati — especially the city — needs better government to stop driving away population and business and reclaim its heritage as a national model of good governance. Our region needs to master teamwork, or Indianapolis, Columbus and Louisville will leave us in the dust.


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