Cincinnati wants to lure the man who oversaw the construction of Fort Washington Way and The Banks to take over the streetcar project.
The decision to hire John Deatrick, a heavy hitter on big projects, drew praise from streetcar supporters who expect that he’ll bring experience and Washington connections; Deatrick himself told The Enquirer his hiring could bring a “fresh start” to the controversial project.
But critics called it a terrible time to hire someone new – at as much as $188,000 a year – in light of the pending $35 million budget deficit and possible layoffs of more than 250 police officers and firefighters.
“People at the federal level, they know who he is, they know what he brings,” City Manager Milton Dohoney told council members Monday.
Outrageous, said Councilman Christopher Smitherman, a streetcar opponent. Councilman Charlie Winburn, another streetcar opponent, left council chambers briefly during Monday’s finance committee meeting, joking he needed a glass of whiskey. Fraternal Order of Police President Kathy Harrell fired up her members, posting on the union’s Facebook page during the meeting that council voted to let a new employee double dip while they could lose their jobs. Deatrick retired from the city in 2002.
City officials insist their signature project remains on track, but it has taken significant hits:
• Construction bids came in at least $26 million over budget in February. Officials promised they’d respond in weeks with next steps, including whether to re-bid the project, but that hasn’t happened yet. Dohoney said that would be part of Deatrick’s role. The five streetcars already are under construction, at a cost of $20.5 million total.
• Still in question is whether the city or Duke Energy will have to pay the estimated $15 million cost of relocating utility lines for the project. Duke dropped its request to pass along that bill, if it’s stuck with it, to ratepayers. A court is deciding which pays.
Deatrick told The Enquirer he thinks his experience with the Washington, D.C., streetcar – the first piece of which opens later this year – will help. He was deputy director of the District of Columbia’s transportation department from 2002 to 2008. He helped plan the project to connect Washington’s neighborhoods.
“That doesn’t mean I can swing millions of dollars,” he said, “but it does mean I can send some emails people will actually read.”
Deatrick said his hiring will be “an opportunity to re-engage with the public.” The project has “been beat up so much.”
“We have a pretty good idea why to build it and where it’s going to go,” he said. “We want to work with people on the fence or who don’t support it, see what their problems are and try to engage them.”
Five City Council members, a majority, agreed Monday to do two things to pave the way for his hiring – change the city’s pension rules to allow rehired retirees to draw both their pensions and new salaries and create the position of executive project manager, setting the salary at between $139,000 and $188,000. In 2008, the city stopped allowing retirees to come back and continue to draw their pensions, also known as double-dipping.
“John Deatrick has a proven, successful track record on two of the biggest, most successful projects in Cincinnati history,” said Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, a streetcar supporter. “His experience in Washington, D.C., and his knowledge and success in working with the federal government will help ensure that the streetcar project delivers the highest value for our public dollars.”
She asked in February, after the bids came in high, that a project manager be hired. Even streetcar opponents, she wrote then, deserve the most for their money.
Jerry Newfarmer, former Cincinnati city manager and now a consultant to local governments, also praised the choice of Deatrick.
“I have a lot of respect for John,” he said Monday. “He did a fabulous job with Fort Washington Way. It had ‘disaster’ written all over it” but Deatrick handled it well and finished on time.
He didn’t read the city’s desire for Deatrick as a desperate measure to save the project, but as “that they need somebody to manage the construction of it.”
Deatrick, 68, currently works for both the city and county at The Banks for $175,000. He wants the city job, he told The Enquirer on Monday, but thought the former city pension rule would prevent him from taking it. Now, any retirees can be rehired, but they can’t draw their pensions at the same time as their salaries, according to the Cincinnati Municipal Code.
Deatrick praised the existing streetcar team but said his experience with D.C.’s streetcar makes him the right addition. Current project manager Chris Eilerman would remain on the project with Deatrick.
“I think maybe we just need a fresh start with citizens,” Deatrick said.
Voting for the pension change and new position: Qualls, Wendell Young, Cecil Thomas, Laure Quinlivan and Yvette Simpson.
Voting against: Smitherman, Winburn, Chris Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld. Council could vote as soon as Wednesday to finalize the vote; Dohoney said he hoped to have Deatrick on board soon.
Dohoney said the city doesn’t intend to pay Deatrick out of the general fund, which faces a $35 million deficit next year, but said he couldn’t guarantee he would never in the future use general fund money without talking to the law department first. Dohoney would have to ask council’s approval to transfer Deatrick’s position into the general fund later. Now, he would be paid out of streetcar project funds, as Eilerman is.
Smitherman called the whole conversation “outrageous,” given the city is talking about laying off 344 people, including 149 police officers, 80 firefighters and 38 new firefighters just out of the fire academy.
Seelbach, who has supported the streetcar, asked why it makes sense, given that the streetcar bids came in higher than expected, to spend more money to hire a new project director. Dohoney said part of Deatrick’s job would be to iron the money issue out.
Deatrick started with the city in 1973 in urban development. He moved on to planning, becoming the director of the Department of Transportation and Engineering in 1999. While there he oversaw the Fort Washington Way project. Prior to his involvement, the road had the highest accident rate of any highway in Ohio because its on and off ramps alternated sides. It now ties Interstates 71, 74 and 471 as well as U.S. 50, allowing the city to build Second Street along the stadiums.
He retired from the city in 2002 and moved to Washington to take the transportation job. The streetcar project was controversial there too, he said, but in different ways.
Parts of the district don’t allow overhead wires, he said, and neighborhoods fought, everyone wanting the route through their own neighborhood.
“I tried to ensure it integrated well into streetscape projects and instill best value for the money,” Deatrick said. “You want to make it look good, as well as operate effectively.”
He left D.C. in 2007 during a change of administrations, taking a job at Jacob’s Engineering in Arlington, Va., where he worked on projects related to Baltimore’s light rail and subway systems. He returned to Cincinnati the following year to work on The Banks.
Deatrick’s a streetcar proponent because they “immediately bring economic development,” he said. “It’s already increased property values on the route.”
But it needs the extension to Uptown, he said: “The University of Cincinnati connection and an integration into the bus system is needed to ensure its viability as a transit system.”