Sunday, January 12, 2003

Heimlich's aim: Treat county like business

Q&A with new incoming county commissioner

Hamilton County Commissioner-elect Phil Heimlich sounds an awful lot like Cincinnati Councilman Phil Heimlich.

Phil Heimlich stands in the Hamilton County adminstration building.
(Tony Jones photo)
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He wants to run the county like a business, possibly privatizing some services. He wants to bring in outside oversight of the county's finances. He wants to cut taxes and fees and spending.

Mr. Heimlich, 50, will be sworn in Monday to replace Commissioner Tom Neyer, a fellow Republican who did not seek re-election. Mr. Heimlich, a Mount Washington resident, served on council for eight years, until term limits forced him out in 2001.

On paper, it may seem like an even trade - Todd Portune will still be the commission's' only Democrat - but Mr. Heimlich has signaled in typically blunt fashion that things are going to change.

Earlier this week, he derided as "goodies" almost $5 million in spending that Mr. Neyer and Mr. Portune added to the 2003 county budget. He and Commissioner John Dowlin plan to return the "goodies" to the store, Mr. Heimlich said.

In an interview with Enquirer reporter Cindi Andrews, he suggested other directions he'll be pointing to in the next four years:

QUESTION: What do you want to tackle first as a commissioner?

Answer: The one thing I heard in the campaign more than anything else is that people want me to take care of their money. There's a lack of trust out there about county government. I think a lot of it has to do with the Bengals deal. I think people feel kind of ripped off.

I look at businesses, even in this economy - businesses like Wal-Mart - that are able to offer quality products at a lower price. They're finding ways to give better service at lower cost. Why shouldn't we at Hamilton County be as responsive as they are at Wal-Mart? To do this we have to work cooperatively and in a nonpartisan manner. I'm looking forward to working with (Democratic County Auditor) Dusty Rhodes. I think that he and I think alike on a lot of these things.

Q: Are there specific departments where you feel residents aren't getting value?

A: We have a tradition in this region of bringing in outside entities to review how governments work, provide the accountability that's needed. I'm going to work very hard to bring that kind of outside oversight to county departments.

I feel very strongly about the tax levies as well, that they need to be subject to the same oversight. By doing that we'll find out exactly where the dollars are going and what kind of service we're getting.

• June 1994: Council approves a curfew, proposed by Phil Heimlich, that requires 16- and 17-year-olds to be off the streets by midnight and youths 14 and younger to be inside by 10 p.m.

December 1994: Council approves a Heimlich plan to put 25 more officers on the street by hiring civilians to fill 25 desk jobs held by uniformed officers.
• June 1995: Mr. Heimlich votes with the 5-4 majority to support a two-stadium plan for the Cincinnati riverfront, to be paid for with a sales tax hike.
• August 1996: Council approves a Heimlich proposal to limit strip clubs, porn shops and adult bookstores to industrial zones in parts of Camp Washington, Winton Place, Winton Hills, Bond Hill, Oakley, Pleasant Ridge and Queensgate.
• June 1997: A Heimlich-sponsored measure to put a video camera on a crime-ridden corner in Evanston passes City Council. Cincinnati has since installed at least six more cameras in various city neighborhoods.
• October 1997: Citizens on Patrol, a Heimlich initiative to improve neighborhood safety, debuts in Madisonville.
• November 1999: Mr. Heimlich finishes fourth in his final council race despite spending $504,176 - breaking the council record for individual spending for the third straight election. He raised $456,352 in 1997, $362,342 in 1995 and $245,808 in 1993, his first run.

I'll give you one example: the county building department. I know they have a lot of hard-working people, but I can tell you, I've heard some pretty rough stories. I've got a friend on the west side of town who wanted to build a tool shed. He said it took him close to five months of inspections, hassles and permits to be able to build a tool shed. If it's that tough to build a tool shed, what's it take to build a house? No wonder we're losing people at a greater rate than any county in the country except the Greater Philadelphia region. It goes much deeper than one department, but that's a place to start.

We're talking about providing better service at the best possible price. It's interesting, though, that this year Procter & Gamble slashed $4 billion in costs and is trying to outsource close to 7,000 workers. Broadwing had to cut 500 jobs. Delta continues to downsize. If the private sector is downsizing, then why isn't county government? Many employees retire every year. We can do it through attrition.

Q: Are you thinking of proposing a hiring freeze? Are these things that you plan to address right away?

A: If I had been involved in the budget process, I would have definitely worked in that direction. For right now, my goal is going to be to reduce the size of county government. And it's not just on the spending side. One of my goals for this year is going to be to work toward reducing the property transfer tax further, to work toward reducing the fees for dog permits and building permits, things like that.

To compound it, I've found just in looking at the books down here that they do something called funny bookkeeping. They have a fund called the budget stabilization fund. Supposedly the purpose of this fund is to protect against downturns in the economy and to have it there for emergencies. When I started checking into it I found out that same money that is in the budget stabilization fund, that $19 million, is actually committed to pay off bonds that were used to buy radios for (emergency personnel). However, that same money was also promised to The Banks last year. Now, I'm new at this, but to me, that's funny bookkeeping.

Q: You're a proponent of opening government services to private competition. Are there any county services that may be ripe for that?

A: My heart's desire is (the Metropolitan Sewer District). If you look at other cities that have had success with managed competition, the greatest savings is with sewer facilities. The problem is, we own the system and the city runs it. I would urge the members of City Council to work with us on this to save the ratepayers money. My understanding is if the city is willing to simply adjust the contract, we can get this done.

Q: What do you think the county should do in regard to the Bengals?

A: The Bengals lease was the worst deal any government in this region has entered into in the last 20 or 30 years, and we're all suffering from it. ... If any lawyer worth his salt tells us we have a claim to recover some of those monies, I'm on board. At the same time, if the lawyers tell us that we're stuck, that we have no case, I'm not going to posture on the issue, either.

Q: You're known as a law-and-order politician. Will social services be the first to be slashed under your watch?

A: My philosophy is that government should focus on basic services, which means putting police on the streets, filling the potholes, things like that. Not the frills.

At the same time, whether I agree with the system or not, the system we are presented with requires us to meet the needs of many people who need social services.

My feeling is if we are obligated to provide those services we should provide the best services possible. I consider the people who are receiving child support or kids who are getting services from the Department of Human Services to be our clients, and we should treat them like clients.

Q: How do you feel about implementing a countywide emergency siren system?

A: As a long-term goal, I support that. I think it is a duty that the county should be responsible for. I also feel that way about reducing the cost of dispatching. It's absolutely intolerable that police and fire departments might opt out of the 800-mHz (communications) system because they can't afford it. But if we're going to fund those things, we need to get lean and mean with the general fund.

Q: You've been an advocate of limiting where sexually oriented businesses can locate. Do you plan to pursue that at the county level?

A: There is absolutely a critical need. If you do nothing you're at the mercy of strip club operators who won't hesitate to set up next to your kid's school or across the street from a nursing home. Wherever we have the ability to pass zoning to put those laws in place I'll certainly work with the townships, the municipalities and the zoning commission to whatever extent I can. Some parts of the county (already limit adult businesses), some don't.

Q: With two of the three commissioners being former council members, is there a danger of the county focusing too much on Cincinnati?

A: I think the people out in the suburbs feel very comfortable with me; I don't think they feel a lack of representation with me.

This brings up another issue: Should the county be supporting downtown development? I think the county does have a responsibility to help the city. But if city leaders continue to cut deals with the boycott leaders and continue to pass living-wage laws and other kinds of red tape, if they refuse to support the police when the going gets tough, the city of Cincinnati is going to continue to go down the tubes and there's nothing anyone can do to help them.

But I support The Banks project. We made a promise; we need to keep that promise.


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