Monday, October 01, 2001

Hamilton takes a small step forward

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — This city's economic picture, which darkened in recent years with the departure of one big business after another, has looked a little brighter lately.

        Its bond rating improved; its general-fund revenue is running ahead of last year's; and there is greater residential and commercial building activity than last year.

        The city's water service capacity has increased, and its unemployment rate rose only slightly in the past year.

        “A lot of people have the impression that we're swimming in red ink,” Vice Mayor Thomas Nye said. “But we're doing reasonably well. There are a lot of positive indicators.”

        Still, Hamilton officials are cautious, given the national economic slowdown.

        City Manager Steve Sorrell has recommended an 8-percent reduction in the general-fund budget for 2002. And the city is working to fill the gaps in its economy left by the hundreds of layoffs by such major employers as Ohio Casualty Group, International Paper and Mercy Hospital Hamilton.

        “We know we have to be very, very careful with what we're doing so we don't end up in a downward spiral we can't recover from,” Hamilton Finance Director James Graff said. “When you start looking down that vortex, it's very scary.”

        That's why city officials were so relieved when Moody's, the credit-rating firm, removed the “negative outlook” tag next to its A-2 bond rating.

        A community's bond rating affects its ability to obtain loans at more favorable interest rates. If the negative outlook tag had not been removed from Hamilton, its bond rating might have slipped a notch lower. That could have set this city of 61,000 residents on a course for economic disaster.

        Hamilton's general-fund revenue is $2 million ahead of last year's, and its unemployment rate has risen only half a percent, from 4.5 percent to 5 percent.

        City officials say those two factors indicate that many of the Hamilton residents who lost their jobs have found new ones.

        “A lot of small companies are moving in and picking these people up and putting them to work,” Mr. Sorrell said.

        Another healthy economic sign is the city's building activity. There were more than 1,200 residential building permits issued through August of this year, about three times the number for all of last year.

        There were 400 commercial building permits issued through August of this year, 25 more than in 2000.

        The state recently increased Hamilton's water capacity rating from 37.3 million gallons per day to 46 million gallons per day.

        Mayor Adolf Olivas said this will help the city's efforts to attract residential and commercial development.

        But he said Hamilton has a long way to go.


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