Monday, January 14, 2002

Race panel's ideas move toward action


But timing and money details remain unclear

By Greg Korte, Jennifer Edwards and Jeff McKinney
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Eight months into meetings, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken's race relations panel has unveiled a list of 25 initiatives — but there are few specifics and some recommendations aren't final.

        And without a time line or price tag, it remains unclear which programs will happen and which are no more than scattered brainstorms.

        In a two-page advertisement in Sunday's Enquirer, Cincinnati Community Action Now ticked off new plans to improve economic development, housing and school achievement.

        Mr. Luken did not return phone calls Sunday for comment on the initiatives.

        But the most-developed plans are in the area of police-community relations, where the outlines of a “Cincinnati Plan” could be implemented within a month or so, commission members said.

        Meanwhile, seven of Cincinnati's largest banks have committed to offering below-market mortgages and home improvement loans to help people buy or renovate homes in the city, also part of the CAN initiative.

        The commission's change in direction — a move from “Cincinnati CAN to Cincinnati will,” as co-chairman Ross Love described it — is an attempt to better focus on the most important areas.

        “We didn't have riots in April because we had bad dental care,” said Betty Hull, a commission spokeswoman. “If we try to do everything, we run the risk of doing absolutely nothing.”

Police-community relations

        A number of proposals to improve police-community relations are being considered under the “Cincinnati Plan.”

        Pilot projects will begin shortly in the east-side neighborhoods of Police District 2, said Herb Brown, a CAN leader.

        Two programs on police-community relations are being proposed for the first time:

        • “Operation Night Light,” modeled after a Boston program, pairs police officers with probation officers to make unannounced evening visits on probationers.

        • A gun task force modeled after the “Kansas City Gun Experiment,” which led to a 65 percent increase in the seizure of illegal guns during a six-month period in 1992. The gun experiment would use “a high concentration of stops and interrogations in areas with excessively high crime levels.”

        Given allegations of racial profiling, some say it could be difficult to balance the more aggressive approach with a respect for civil rights.

        “You can't just thrust that onto the citizens of Cincinnati,” said Cecil Thomas, a retired 28-year Cincinnati detective who now is executive director the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission.

        “You have to prepare them and get a lot of feedback before you implement that program,” Mr. Thomas said.

        The program could prove useful in Cincinnati, which saw a 600 percent increase in shootings last summer and hit a 14-year homicide high.

        Police Chief Tom Streicher did not return calls Sunday for comment on the police-community initiatives.

        But the Rev. Damon Lynch III, an unpaid consultant on CAN's police and justice team, noted it didn't speak well for the gun experiment that the Kansas City Police Department dropped it after federal funding ended.

        Overall, the Rev. Mr. Lynch said, the police recommendations were the most viable of everything suggested so far by the panel.

        “These were the flash points in April. The key is engaging the African-American community and helping to foster good police-community relations,” he said.

        He plans to meet today with clergy teams to continue figuring out time lines, costs and target communities.

Housing

        Under CAN's housing initiative, Fifth Third, Firstar, Provident, PNC, Huntington, Bank One and Key banks will offer a “universal loan” to residents.

        Lawra Baumann, a vice president at Fifth Third Bank and co-chair of Cincinnati CAN's banking subcommittee, said the goal is to provide better housing to local residents, increase home ownership in the inner city and attract more people to city neighborhoods.

        The home ownership rate in the city of Cincinnati is 38 percent, well below the national average of 67 percent, at the same time as the city's population has been declining.

        The loan, which would be the first of its type locally and available at all seven banks, would feature more lenient underwriting standards than conventional loans and require no private mortgage insurance.

        It could mean down payments as low as $500 and carry below-market interest rates, though details on rates are being worked out now with financial backers from around the country.

        Ms. Baumann said plans would allow individuals to apply for up to $250,000 to buy homes. First-time home buyers making up to $50,000 a year are among those who would be eligible. Cincinnati CAN hopes to formally launch the program by April, she said.

        Moreover, Ms. Baumann said Cincinnati CAN is working on a program called Employer Assisted Homeownership Initiative.

        This involves recruiting employers from the Tristate — including public and private companies, non-profit groups and the City of Cincinnati — who would help workers buy or repair homes in the city with grants or loans.

        The program is based on models that have been used in other U.S. cities. Employ ers could offer employees a cash grant, low-interest loan or forgiveable loan. The gifts could be small, with contributions averaging $2,500 to $3,000. Employers could get tax breaks for participating.

        “The key is what we're really trying to do is eliminate all barriers that stop people from owning a home,” Ms. Baumann said. “We want to increase home ownership here to a level where it's at in similar-sized regional cities.”

Show me the money

        Some of the other CAN proposals — increasing juror pay, improving job training, and expanding Head Start preschool programs — could be expensive.

        It's time that the commission begins to attach price tags to some of the programs, and identify funding sources, some community leaders said.

        “The youth employment initiative is going to take a public/private partnership,” said Vice Mayor Alicia Reece, who chairs the City Council committee that deals with job training issues. “I think there are some great people who have participated with CAN, but now we're down to how are we going to fund these things. That's the part I haven't seen yet.”

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch said that should be the next step.

        “I know the business community made promises to finance initiatives,” he said. “Clearly, the idea is there will be the financial commitment. We should hold them to those promises. It's about time for things to be concrete. The community has expectations.

        “Clearly, if you don't see something this year, this spring — a year from April's unrest — then Cincinnati CAN has failed miserably and you have let the entire community down.”

        Other CAN leaders were more optimistic and pointed out that some of the panel's efforts, such as the passage of civil service reform, already have been accomplished.

        “I feel very good about the direction in which we are moving,” said the Rev. Michael Graham, president of Xavier University and a co-chair of the police and justice team. “Read all those elements of the plan as a snapshot of a point in time. Is this the final be-all, end-all? No.”

        Lynch continues work with CAN, without pay



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