Thursday, December 02, 1999

Luken: Council's 'plate is full'

New-old mayor, two newcomers join incumbents

The Cincinnati Enquirer

New council member Alicia Reese and her father, Steven Reece, recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        After a day of ceremony, a new Cincinnati City Council took office Wednesday with a “new-old” mayor, two fresh faces and a plate full of difficult issues to deal with over the next two years.

        Democrat Charlie Luken — 10 years and a day after he left City Hall as mayor — was sworn into office in jam-packed City Council chambers Wednesday morning, as were two of the youngest members to be elected in recent years — 31-year-old Republican Pat DeWine and 28-year-old Democrat Alicia Reece.

        “We are not going to be able to fool anybody,” Mr. Luken said, making his inaugural speech without notes and walking the floor of council, instead of from the elevated mayor's chair.

        “The people of Cincinnati are pretty savvy,” the 48-year-old leader of council's Democratic majority said. “They know when something's a scam and they know when people here are acting for the best interest of the city.

        “There are plenty of opportunities for this city right now; our plate is full,” said Mr. Luken, who left council in 1989 for a term in Congress and a six-year stint as a TV news anchor.

        Among the first issues the new council will have to deal with, Mr. Luken said, is the city budget for 2000, finding $56 million needed for The Banks riverfront development project, and how to fund a convention center expansion that most council members agree is needed.

        “And we have promised to deliver basic, good services and we have to do it on a tight budget,” Mr. Luken said.

        The new council has the same partisan make-up as the last one — five Democrats, three Republicans and one Charter Committee member.

        But, while the last council developed a reputation as being a contentious body that was often paralyzed by political squabbling, all nine council members elected Nov. 2 — incumbents and newcomers alike — pledged Wednesday to try to work together.

        “This council will be scrutinized and judged more so than any other council in the history of the city of Cincinnati, probably,” said Democrat Todd Portune. “We've got to work together.”

        But Mr. Luken, who campaigned this year on a promise to end the bickering at City Hall, warned Cincinnatians not to expect too much.

        “Don't be surprised if voices get raised sometimes,” Mr. Luken said.

        The new council started its work Wednesday by unanimously adopting a Democratic reorganization plan that will trim the number of committees from eight to five and share some of the power with the Republicans.

        The nine council members will have to start work immediately on a budget update for 2000.

        Last month, City Manager John Shirey proposed a budget update for 2000 that, while it cuts $4.8 million in spending approved by council last year, still calls for an 8 percent increase in spending next year.

        Mr. Luken and Finance Committee chair Minette Cooper have vowed to have the budget update completed by the end of the month, but, even then, council will face a projected budget deficit of $17.2 million by 2004, after carrying over $40 million from 1998.

        Council spending is an issue that Mr. DeWine, the son of U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine and a Cincinnati lawyer, used in his successful council campaign.

        Mr. DeWine said he wants to look closely at budget issues before the council approves cuts recommended by the city manager in the next couple of weeks. City spending, he said, needs “to get back to the basics.” He cited a 5.5 percent growth of the city's general fund, which pays for basic city services such as fire and police protection.

        “This is at a time when inflation is only at 2 percent,” Mr. DeWine said. “The most recent budget shows the city takes in more than it spends.”

        The other new council member, Ms. Reece, said one of her first priorities will be to back up her campaign pledge to be accessible by opening a Bond Hill office that will open to the public two days a week.

        The office, owned by her parents, at Reece and Reece Executive Suites, will be staffed by volunteers who will field questions about city services and issues that might be coming up before the city council.

        As chair of the newly formed Health, Social and Children's Services, Small Business Development, Employment and Training Committee, Ms. Reece said there are two policy issues she intends to focus on immediately:

        Additional funding for health-care and child services, and small business development.

        “We need to retain small business and find ways to develop new ones,” she said.

        Ms. Reece said she wants to find ways to fund health care, particularly for basic child-care services, even if it means lobbying the state for extra money.

        All the council members have an appointment sometime later this month with Mr. Shirey to review his performance and determine his future.

        Six months ago, the old council met with Mr. Shirey and, in effect, put him on probation, telling him that the new council would review his performance in late December.

        “What we need is for council to give clear direction to the city manager,” Mr. Luken said this week. “We need to talk more.”

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