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A Mainstay Of Cincinnati's Budget - Public Comments - Will Soon Look Different

Bill Rinehart

Public hearings are always an important part of Cincinnati's budget process, and the COVID-19 pandemic will likely change how that works this year.

Traditionally, City Council's Budget and Finance Committee holds three evening hearings in different parts of the city to take public comment.

But Committee Chairman David Mann said with social distancing guidelines expected to last into next month, he's studying alternatives with city administrators.

"A viable way to make sure that individual members of the public can communicate their thoughts on the budget - they can do so in a way that they can watch us, listen - and citizens who are interested in the budget process can also be aware of the comments," Mann said.

Mann said it will be more than just asking residents to submit written comments.  He said having people address the committee is important.

"It does matter how many people are there to talk, what issues they're talking about, and we don't assume at all when we start in the budget process that because it comes to us via the administration and the mayor that it can't be amended," Mann said. "It is - that's part of the process."

Mann said one suggestion was to use the largest room at the Duke Energy Convention Center where people could be properly spaced.  But he said that's likely not feasible.

The budget hearings will probably rely on web conferencing technology. Residents could be asked to sign up in advance to speak, and then the clerk of council would connect with them when it was time to address the committee.

City Manager Patrick Duhaney is scheduled to release his proposed budget to Mayor John Cranley May 21.  The mayor then has 15 days to review the proposal, make changes and forward it to City Council.

Public comments could be extremely valuable for council members to hear as the city faces a $91.4 million deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1. City administrators have already proposed $32.8 million in reductions for next year. But that still leaves a $58.6 million gap.

Mann said that assumes the pandemic ends this summer, and the recovery begins.

"You tell me when it's going to end and I can tell you how severe the budget problem is and what the solutions are," Mann said. "So that's one variable. Another variable is what the federal government's going to do in terms of support for governments that's not restricted to pandemic-related expenses."

Besides balancing next year's budget, Cincinnati officials also must close a $9 million gap for the rest of this fiscal year which ends June 30.  More than 300 city workers are on temporary furloughs through June 27 to help save money.

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Jay Hanselman brings more than 10 years experience as a news anchor and reporter to 91.7 WVXU. He came to WVXU from WNKU, where he hosted the local broadcast of All Things Considered. Hanselman has been recognized for his reporting by the Kentucky AP Broadcasters Association, the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and the Ohio AP Broadcasters.