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“Chaos Can Be a Ladder of Opportunity and Innovation”: Q&A with Patrick Duhaney

Patrick Duhaney, City Manager of Cincinnati and a LISC Emerging Leaders Council member, tells LISC Cincinnati ED Kristin Baker what it’s like to help run the city in the age of Covid-19. In the face of the economic downturn and sheltering in place, the strategies he and his team are implementing could be part of a blueprint for other organizations, and other crises.

Patrick Duhaney is the City Manager of Cincinnati and a member of LISC’s Emerging Leaders Council. Prior to entering public office, Patrick worked at LISC as a program officer responsible for making community development loans and working to bring resources to the redevelopment of Cincinnati neighborhoods, including Avondale and Price Hill, where LISC continues to invest.

Patrick sat down with Kristen Baker, executive director of LISC Cincinnati, to talk about the challenges and opportunities of managing a city through this Covid-19 crisis. City government – like every other institution in our lives – has had to change radically to adapt to the current unprecedented circumstances.

Patrick describes how city departments have pivoted to adapt to the new environment, what he’s seeing in neighborhoods and business districts across Cincinnati, and how his military experience prepared him for the hard choices he has had to make over the last several months.

(Note: This interview was conducted before the nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police; LISC was able to follow up with a question related to the city's police reform work.)

One of your roles before you began working for the City of Cincinnati was with LISC. How did that job prepare you for city government?
Probably the most important thing I learned from LISC was the importance of engaging the community in a neighborhood. I think it's important to get the feedback of those we govern, especially when you're making changes that impact how their community looks and feels. Especially the built environment, things like economic development, community development projects, it's really vital that you give the community an opportunity to help craft a vision of how they want their community to be. A lot of that I learned from the Quality of Life planning process that we worked on at LISC and also from the local Place Matters program.

Can you describe what your role as City Manager encompasses?
I'm the employee of the Mayor and Council of the City of Cincinnati. I'm the only person who works directly for the Mayor and Council, and I'm accountable to them to ensure that the City operates, and all the departments do the tasks and activities they're required to do. I also advise the Mayor and Council on policy initiatives and policy implications, as well as how to appropriately fund City operations.  

How many employees does the City of Cincinnati have?
We have 6,600 employees, and our budget is about $1.6 billion.

What effect has COVID had on the city government?
For our city government, it's been financially devastating. According to a recent Brookings Institution report, of the top 10 cities in America likely to face immediate fiscal impact from COVID-19, Cincinnati was number two, and Columbus, Ohio was number one. The primary reason is that our principal source of funding is income tax, so when everybody loses their jobs, we lose our funding very quickly.

We're in a good place right now in that we've got adequate reserves, but going into next year we're projecting about a $91 million budget deficit. And when you look at a $400 million operating budget, that's basically a quarter of the budget. So we've had to do a massive amount of furloughs – about 1,700 right now – and we've had to make draconian changes. In Cincinnati, we pride ourselves on supporting our human services partner agencies, but we had to ask all of our human services funded agencies to take a 25% haircut to help the city navigate the remainder of the fiscal year.  

But it has also forced us to innovate. We've all had to jump into the virtual meeting pool quicker than we really expected and to find different ways to engage our community. In the first month or so of the pandemic, it was okay not to engage, because everybody was under a stay at home mandate. But now that we know that we're probably going to have to live with COVID-19 for another 12 to 18 months, we all need to figure out a way that we can engage our community. Because development's going to happen, projects are still going to happen, and the community still deserves a say in how their neighborhoods are going to look.

Children in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, one of the areas where LISC has long invested.
Children in the Avondale neighborhood of Cincinnati, one of the areas where LISC has long invested.

What we're focused on right now as a city government is doing things that others are not doing. For example, we did a survey of all the homeless providers within the city, and we found that even though most of their population is healthy, they’re not able to manage individuals who are COVID-19 positive or symptomatic within their footprint. So we've repurposed one of our recreation centers to be a quarantine facility for individuals experiencing homelessness.

I think chaos is a ladder of opportunity and innovation, so we're figuring out different ways to help spur the reopening of the city.

Recognizing the public-facing role of the City’s employees and the odds of people being exposed to COVID, I'm sure there's a lot of concern amongst your staff and city employees. How are you handling that?
Overall, we're trying to avoid contact as much as possible. So I rarely have meetings in person. A lot of the departments, especially those with 500 or more employees that work in a particular space, they've figured out a way to flex their shifting. So some employees work from 8:00 to 5:00, and other employees are working staggered shifts so that they don't have to congregate as closely together. We have also moved a lot of our public services equipment to different recreation facilities or parks so employees don't have to meet in one big work yard any more.

How has the City responded to the recent national discussion on race relations and police reform in light of the death of George Floyd?
Cincinnati has been at the forefront of this topic for several years as a result of our historic Collaborative Agreement in 2002. For that process, the City worked with residents, clergy, community organizers, attorneys, policymakers and law enforcement officials to evaluate and reshape Cincinnati’s policies and procedures as it relates to policing. That agreement led to a series of reforms and solutions for dealing with issues related to police use of force, data transparency, officer accountability, and community-police relations. The agreement became a model for cities across the nation.

We went through a voluntary refresh of the Agreement in 2018 to ensure its policies and practices were still in alignment with its principles. While positive overall, the refresh recommended several areas to reenergize policies and procedures to come into greater alignment with the Agreement’s principles and to stay current with the times. This work is ongoing.

While Cincinnati has come a long way, we know there’s still room to grow. Our police department is a national model for law enforcement – but that doesn’t mean we aren’t committed to regular and meaningful improvement, where possible. In light of recent events we are turning our attention to the next generation to help ensure their voices are represented at the table. We are committed to ongoing conversations and community investment as we continue to build, shape and improve community-police relations.

Our neighborhoods need a plan to come out of this situation and to better position themselves to be more resilient in the future.

What kinds of impact do you see across Cincinnati as a result of the pandemic? What do you think the climate is like here right now?
I see financial despair. I’m thinking about many of the neighborhoods that we work in – Madisonville, Avondale, Walnut Hills, Over the Rhine, and Price Hill. You see some of the neighborhood business districts that the City and LISC and other partners work together to fund, to help build capacity, to make change, and you see those businesses shutter.

The life of the community has dissipated. Many of those neighborhood business districts were starting to bring jobs back in, to bring back some kind of life, a sense of community. The hard part of this is that a lot of our neighborhoods were turning the corner, and this could really put us back into a 2007-2008 recession-like situation.

But at the same time as you're seeing a lot of despair, you're seeing a lot of resiliency and innovation. I've seen small businesses figure out different ways that they can continue to serve their customers and their clients. And I've also seen Cincinnatians trying to figure out ways that they can continue to support those businesses, to make sure that when things get closer to normal that those businesses can continue to open their doors.  

How have the federal stimulus dollars affected the city? Where do you see gaps, and what kind of resources do you hope the future stimulus packages could provide the city?
For the city, the sad part about how the stimulus – the initial CARES Act money – was rolled out, was that it really went to states and cities or counties with populations above 500,000. As a result of that, we have not received any CARES Act money, and I think that did a disservice to our city. The formula that was used didn't take context into account. Cincinnati is the engine of a region that's around 3 million strong, but because of how Cincinnati was historically set up, we weren't allowed to annex. So even though the region around us is considered Cincinnati, because we haven’t been able to grow through annexation, Cincinnati proper is just 300,000 folks.     

As I mentioned before, we have a $91 million budget deficit, and because we haven't received a direct subsidy from the CARES Act, we've got to figure out a way to reduce services to pay for this deficit, since we are required by law to have a balanced budget. And it's not like Cincinnati was one of these cities that did not take care of its responsibilities. We were having a historic year financially, and we've been reinvesting tremendously in our emergency reserves.

Enlivening a Cincinnati block through creative placemaking work, pre-Covid.
Enlivening a Cincinnati block through creative placemaking work, pre-Covid.

But a city of this size does not have $91 million ready and available to continue services. To fill this hole, we would have to deplete all of our reserves in one year. Cincinnati is a city of landslides and floods, so if a natural disaster happens and we've depleted our reserves to balance the budget, we won't be able to help our citizens in their time of need.  

The other hard part is that, by having to focus on funding core services – keeping the police, the fire department, and our health department functioning – we have to pull away from investing in community engagement, investing in community development, and helping to partner with LISC and other folks to help ensure that CDCs have enough capacity and pipeline to operate and advocate for their communities.

What role do you think organizations like LISC play in partnering with city governments, especially at this time of crisis?
At the city, we don't have the financial capacity or bandwidth to focus on building community engagement, building community development, or focusing on getting our neighborhoods to where they need to be in terms of quality of life; we have to focus on making sure that the trash is picked up, the stores are operating, police and fire come when you call them. So I think now more than ever organizations like LISC are needed to help continue to build the capacity of our neighborhoods. Our neighborhoods need a plan to come out of this situation and to better position themselves to be more resilient in the future.

One thing that I truly appreciate about LISC right now is the flexible small business grant program. I think that's an amazing resource, because what our small businesses don't need is a lot of high interest debt. They need some flexible dollars to ride out this storm.

How are you, as an essential worker, coping with this?  
I'm a combat veteran of two wars. I love doing work that matters and I love having this responsibility at this moment. I'm probably exhausted, but I'll probably get some rest when I'm finally done with this responsibility. But I think it's situations like these that I was born for. I've spent a lot of my time in these kinds of situations, and I'd like to say that my experiences over the years have given me an ability to navigate them.

(Addendum: Patrick Duhaney will be leaving Cincinnati at the end of July to take up the position of city manager for Virginia Beach, VA.)

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Leaders and entrepreneurs from a diverse range of sectors working to bring fresh perspectives, networks and attention to LISC’s work.

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