CINCINNATI — City Council is giving residents several opportunities over the next few months to voice their opinions on what Cincinnati should prioritize in its more than $1 billion budget for the next two fiscal years.

What You Need To Know

  • City Council is hosting a series of community meetings to get residents more involved in the budget process

  • Cincinnati must pass its Fiscal Years 2024 and 2025 budget by the end of June 

  • During community hearings, residents can speak for up to two minutes about their budget priorities

  • Feedback from the hearings will go toward the creation of City Council's budget priority document

The first hearing is Tuesday, March 14, at Evanston Recreation Center on Woodburn Avenue. Residents have two minutes to voice their budget priorities to the mayor, City Council and members of the city administration.

It starts at 5:30 p.m. These meetings continue until all residents who’ve signed up to speak have spoken.

The other community input sessions are Monday, March 20 at Sayler Park Recreation Center, and Wednesday, March 29 at McKie Recreation Center in Northside. Both meetings start at 5:30 p.m.

Council will also hear public comment during regular meetings of the Budget and Finance Committee. Those usually happen every Monday at 1 p.m.

As a reference, the fiscal year 2023 budget was $1.5 billion.

“We look forward to hearing from the public during these sessions and working collaboratively to pass a budget that represents the values of the community and this council,” said Council member Reggie Harris, chair of the Budget and Finance Committee.

Reinventing how Cincinnati approaches its budget

Harris took over as budget chair following the departure of former Council member Greg Landsman, who got elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November. Harris modeled the budget hearing schedule after those held by Landsman last year.

Prior to 2022, these hearings took place after the release of the draft budget created by the city’s administration under the leadership of the city manager. Those hearings usually took place in May and June.

The first meeting last year was in early April. City Council must approve its fiscal year budget by the end of June.

Holding the sessions earlier in the process aims to give residents a chance to weigh in before the city manager’s team finishes the bulk of the budget document, Harris said.

“As the new budget chair, my office has worked hard to make the budget engagement as early, accessible, and meaningful as possible, and a major part of that is bringing our hearings out to the community,” said Harris, who’s in his first term on City Council.

Gina Marsh, a government affairs consultant for nonprofits, spoke highly of City Council’s “refreshing” attempt to be intentional about engaging residents. That’s especially true of the budget, she said.

The city’s budget office held a virtual “Budget Basics” meeting on Feb. 28 to teach residents about the city’s budget and the role they can play in helping to create it. A similar presentation took place last weekend at the annual Neighborhood Summit.

One thing they went over is the fact Cincinnati has a biennial budget. That means the city is preparing a budget for fiscal years 2024 and 2025. They’ll reevaluate and update the budget next year based on the financial realities facing the city.

Those classes are a way to “demystify the budget process as much as possible,” according to City Manager Sheryl Long.

Cincinnati skyline. (AP)
There are three evening budget hearings in March. There will also be regular meetings of the Budget and Finance Committee at City Hall. (AP)

City Council holds regular meetings that are open to the public throughout the year. But most of them take place in the morning or early afternoon Monday through Friday. That schedule can be difficult for a lot of people, Marsh said.

Having more engagement tools, such as only feedback surveys and the ability to call into meetings virtually, would be great additions as well, she added.

“Residents are busy in their lives, and so the more opportunity, the easier the opportunities are to participate in, the better outcome we’re going to have with the budget,” Marsh said.

Marsh has a unique perspective on the city’s budget process, having worked on it on both sides of the dais.

Prior to becoming a social impact consultant, she worked for over a decade at City Hall for a decade. She started as a City Council aide before becoming a city attorney.

Marsh described the hearings as “democracy in action.”

“In order to make good decisions about the budget, Council members need to understand the challenges that residents are experiencing in their personal lives and in their communities,” she said. “These budget hearings are a chance for citizens to describe their perspective, share their knowledge, and share any potential solutions that they have with their elected representatives.”

Most public meetings of this type feature a steady stream of community organizations and nonprofits lining up to advocate for support funding from the city. Typical requests can range from jobs programs and substance abuse rehabs to technology incubators.

This year, for the first time, the city is providing resource sheets to community members and organizations that outline available funding programs. They include both competitive grants and “buckets of money” created by City Council, Harris said.

The goal, the budget chair said, is to ensure conversations during the hearings are “focused and impactful.”

These meetings aren’t just for major nonprofits or other support agencies though, Marsh said. She stressed their value to “everyday residents” looking to make a difference in their neighborhood — whether that’s requesting funds for a new playground or beautification projects to enhance their business district.

“Collective action is where it’s at,” Marsh added. “If you can work with 10 other people who are having the same problem and they can unify around a solution, that’s where you get the impact.”

Comments from residents are going to play a role in creating of City Council’s budget policy motion. The document tells the city administration what the legislative body wants to see in the draft budget.

Harris couldn’t comment on specific budget priorities because members of City Council haven’t yet provided specific feedback. He noted he’ll emphasize city staffing and housing.

The plan is for City Council to pass the motion April 19 during a meeting of the Budget and Finance Committee, Harris said.

Preparing for an uncertain financial future

This year’s budget comes with unique challenges, namely an impending budget deficit in future years once pandemic-era federal funds run dry.

In November, Mayor Aftab Pureval announced the city expects to have a $36 million operating deficit expected within the next two years. “And that gap will grow from there,” he said during his State of the City address.

The city balanced its budget last year by using several one-time sources — pools of money that won’t be available in the future. That included $18.6 million in federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding to cover the deficit.

By law, the city cannot spend more than its income.

As of last June, the city planned to use ARP funds to cover budget deficits for these next two fiscal years as well.

Pureval has assembled a coalition of business, labor and community leaders to help the city face the challenges of the years ahead. The commission is reviewing the city’s budget, analyzing Cincinnati’s economic development strategy, and surveying the community and businesses to create recommendations for future funding priorities.

“There is quite a bit of uncertainty that we are balancing with the pressing issues that Council is trying to answer right now, like housing, violence prevention and pedestrian safety,” Harris said. 

City Council plans to pass the budget in June, according to Harris’ office. The budget must pass by June 30.