Secret Deal for Chamber of Commerce?

Did organizers of the Taste of Cincinnati festival get taxpayer money from the city without city council’s prior knowledge or approval, using a behind-the-scenes favor? Answers proved elusive Monday.

After a request to provide free fire protection and EMS service for this weekend’s Taste of Cincinnati festival stalled before city council earlier this month, some council members were perturbed to learn that the city manager’s office apparently disbursed a “grant” without their consent to help the Chamber of Commerce hire a private service.

The city’s fire and EMS service typically costs the festival about $10,000 annually. Chamber officials made arrangements for reduced service from a private contractor for about $3,000.

Calls to City Hall staffers Monday seeking to confirm the grant’s disbursement weren’t returned, and council members were unsure about its status.

Late last year city council ended the practice of offering free fire and EMS service to certain large events, including the Taste festival and Oktoberfest, after the fire department ran into a budget crunch caused by skyrocketing overtime costs. Because of the shortfall, some fire stations last year temporarily had fewer vehicles available during some shifts, in a cost-cutting measure commonly known as “brownouts.”

Although no event was supposed to get free service in 2006, four council members ─ Jeff Berding, Chris Bortz, Leslie Ghiz and Jim Tarbell ─ proposed May 8 that Taste and Oktoberfest get free or subsidized service because of their economic impact on Cincinnati, which they estimated at $70 million. Berding, Bortz and Ghiz are all newly elected and weren’t involved in the budget that cut the free service; Tarbell was opposed at the time.

Some council members wanted to delay a vote on the request in favor of a standardized policy on providing city services to special events. Currently, some events get free service, some get a 10 percent reduction in cost and others must pay the full cost.

With time running out, local Chamber officials inquired about hiring private service and then requested the grant from city administrators to help defray costs. The grant’s amount wasn’t immediately available Monday.

Some council members said they planned to address the issue with administrators during this Wednesday’s council meeting.

─ Kevin Osborne

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