Tim Riordan’s “Listening Tour” And My Plea For Action
I attended one of the stops on Tim Riordan’s (Dayton’s current City Manager) “listening tour” on June 3rd at the Southeast Priority Board (2160 E. Fifth St.). There were around forty or fifty people crammed into the cramped board room, with representatives from the priority board, the city commission and various other local governmental agencies in attendance. Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell and City Manager Tim Riordan were also in attendance, with Mr. Riordan conducting the salient portion of the meeting, which was to gain insights and ideas from the citizenry of Dayton. Mr Riordan presented a fifteen minute slideshow which outlined the economic situation that Dayton was in at this time as well as some of the nuts and bolts costs involved with running the city and its services. The charts detailed the lost jobs that the area has suffered through, the standing of the general fund and charted all the income and property taxes collected, all juxtaposed against the inflationary index. The glaring truth that was revealed was that Dayton fell well below the inflationary index and lagged far behind every other major city in Ohio.
We are all familiar with the national and international occurrences and trends that led to the failing economy, but on a local level, those events were exacerbated by poor leadership, petty personal greed and a massively myopic shortsightedness. While the portents and omens of what was to come became glaringly evident, the City chose to continually woo large manufacturers in the baseless hope of garnering an anchor for the City’s wildly wavering economy. Heads of corporations and industries were flown in to meet with City officials while, at the same time, businesses that had been here for decades and decades, and who had been left to fend for themselves, quietly closed their doors. The City mustered all of their resources, offering tantalizing tax abatements and lucrative property proposals to these corporate big wigs while people lost their livelihoods and their homes and, those who had not fallen into foreclosure, fled the city fearing the worst that was eventually to come. The City chose to court a chimera instead of taking care of their base: the people…and now they want to listen.
As if making my point, one member of the assemblage brought up a point that members within the civil service divisions of the City of Dayton (most notably the Parks and Recreations division) had submitted suggested and well thought out and presented plans to the City and these suggestions were unilaterally ignored. At times during the question and answer period, City Manager Tim Riordan seemed jovial then dismissive then passively aggressive in responding to the group’s questions and suggestions. One particular point that was brought up was the $400,000 that it costs to mow the 4,000+ vacant properties in the City of Dayton. Riordan said, somewhat coarsely, that the citizens should take matters into their own hands and mow the overgrown lots in their neighborhoods instead of whining about it to the City. Moshe Oren, one of the citizens in attendance, stated that he did, in fact, mow several vacant properties in his neighborhood, but asked if the City would make available some landscaping equipment to make the job a less daunting task. An answer was not forthcoming and Mr. Riordan went on to the next question. It struck me that this would be a solution to save an estimated $2,400,000 a year (based on one mowing cycle over a six month period). The City could provide the neighborhood Priority Boards with several lawn mowers and weed eaters and local groups, such as neighborhood associations, church groups and others that live within that vicinity, could sign them out and mow the various abandoned properties in the area. If the City was worried about liability issues, a blanket waiver form could be provided and signed.
The more the meeting went on, the more it seemed as if it was nothing more than a diversionary display. It was a way for the City to do whatever they had decided to do from the outset and then, if people complain, they have a plausible deniability. They can point to the meetings (which aren’t advertised all that well) and say, “Look! The people of Dayton had every opportunity to be heard! We are making these decisions based on what was suggested!”
One of the more eloquent points came from Mike Schommer, a Southeast Priority Board member when he said:
“I’m not saying that the City of Dayton is never going to come back, but if there are no big innovations that spur on some new development here…” he trailed off, letting the listeners come to their own conclusions. He went on to say that, “Right now we are going to stay either stagnant, or perhaps suffer a smaller decline. Based on the statement I just made, I think we’ve been making moves in this city…tactical moves…to prepare for that and one of them is the deconstruction of the houses. The demand has gone way down and the supply has gone way up and by eliminating these houses, it’s kind of balancing things out so we can compete with the suburbs, who already have a lesser supply. In that thought, when you tie all that together and, in thinking about the budget, I think we need to start thinking of a lesser city government because there is lesser community to still serve.”
“When it comes to (suggesting to increase taxes), on paper it looks fine and $100 seems small, but to many of those residents still left in the city, it is perhaps more than their budget can bear.” Offering up a solution, Schommer said, “What I think we have to do is we have to start saying, ‘What can we do to cater to the residents? What can we do to be prepared to deal with the residents that we are going to be left with?’ In doing so, I don’t think that raising taxes is the best proposition for the simple fact that you’re trying to make up the difference of a work force and a population that was much greater out of the few residents and workers that are left which is only going to further drive anyone who is left in the city away.”
Schommer’s arguments resonated with the room and made me think back to a few weeks ago when I had interview Mr. Riordan and later attended the unveiling of The Greater Downtown Dayton Plan. The tone was much different then than it was that evening in the hot boardroom of the Southeast Priority Board. During the unveiling of The Greater Downtown Dayton Plan, held at the Dayton Racquet Club, the mood was jubilant and hopeful, with all the players in Dayton congratulating each other on such a fine plan. There was an optimistic air that the money that would be needed to embark on this new endeavor would materialize somehow. In stark contrast, the mood at the “listening tour” was darkly dour, where very little, if any, good news imparted. How can this be justified? How can monies seemingly be pulled from thin air for restructuring the river for kayaking or creating pavilions throughout the city for live musical performances, yet the hinterlands of Dayton are left to contend with all of the issues surrounding an abandoned and deteriorating neighborhood? How can one justify the “need” for a 3C Rail System or a comprehensive broadband network when the realistic and day to day needs of the majority of the population is being threatened to be scaled back or even terminated? Does it mean that anyone outside of this magical and invisible circle around the downtown area is less of a citizen or is less in need of the services that their tax dollars were intended for?
The argument would be made that this is for the future, a means to an end. In reading through studies pertaining to the attraction and retention of businesses and employees, especially within the technological industries, the powers that be set out to create a plan that would attract these technological businesses and the employees that come with them. The whole “plan,” however is overshadowed by a myriad of “ifs.” It is a “build it and they will come” kind of mentality wherein the people with ideas try and craft a perfect carrot, not realizing that they have splintered the stick into a million pieces.
Maybe I am too cynical. Maybe the whole thing will work and we will end up living in the Emerald Gem City (without the flying monkeys and such). Maybe we will become the model on which others cities will rate their success. I just can’t seem to ignore what I see and hear on a daily basis. Maybe there are two separate Daytons and I just happen to live in the one that is destined for desolation. Whatever the case, let’s put this whole “listening” thing to the test. Post your ideas to cut the city budget here and also send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll see, together, when any of them come to fruition or if the case has already been closed and we are doomed to a future of raised taxes with the added benefit of having our services cut.