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Cincinnati officials battled for hours last month over filling the city’s $51 million budget hole, possibly laying off workers and cutting some employees

Jeff Berding and Chris Bortz, two of council’s fiscal conservatives, gave a total of $8,700 in bonuses in December.

But they – as did most other council members and Mayor Mark Mallory – also voluntarily gave some of their salaries back to the city and returned thousands of dollars to city coffers in unspent office budget money.

Each council member got $103,070 for 2009 to spend for office operations, including staff pay and office supplies. Mallory started the year with $476,160. Bortz gave $5,200 in bonuses, Berding $3,500.

Both councilmen defended the extra payments, saying staff members who work hard should be rewarded, when possible, even in poor economic times. Bonuses, both said, are more common in the private sector.

“I run a very fiscally conservative office,” Berding said. “I returned more than $10,000 while still giving my staff some performance bonuses at the end of the year. They work extraordinary hours and they do good work on behalf of the taxpayers.”

The bonuses – officially called “gross pay adjustments” – were commonplace around City Hall in the past. Mallory and Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, among others, said they gave bonuses in previous years, but decided against it now because of the economy and city’s budget situation.

Councilwoman Laketa Cole, chairwoman of council’s finance committee, was shocked to learn two colleagues gave bonuses.

“Are you serious?” she asked. “At a time when we’ve been talking about laying people off? When we’re talking about cutting people’s pay?”

She also said that any bonuses had to have been decided by Dec. 19, the deadline to make financial changes with the city clerk. So the bonuses were decided upon while council was still haggling over how to cut the budget. Council members didn’t agree on a budget until late Dec. 21.

The bonuses will help offset the 10 unpaid work days for aides Tracy Schwetschenau in Bortz’s office and Christian Lowry in Berding’s. The other Berding aide who got a bonus, Vickie Stump, no longer works for him.

Each council office works differently in terms of number of staff members and their duties. Some have two aides who equally share legislative duties, while others, such as Bortz’s, rely heavily on one full-time aide and pay a part-timer to answer the phone.

“I’m glad we have the freedom in our budgets to make that decision based on performance,” Bortz said.

It might be better, he said, for the city to give increases based on performance, rather than the many salary increases that are built into union contracts. The 886 members of the city’s middle-management union, Cincinnati Organized and Dedicated Employees, for example, get a 3 percent cost-of-living increase in March as well as a 3 percent step increase on their anniversary dates.

All city employees not represented by unions will take 10 unpaid days this year to help cut the budget. Each took six days in 2009. Mallory initially asked the unions to also take 10 unpaid days this year, but he withdrew that unpopular request after council members found other cost savings, mostly by borrowing money that will have to be repaid later. Council chose more than $20 million in one-time cuts rather than going with City Manager Milton Dohoney’s recommendation to lay off more than 200 full-time employees and start charging for trash collection.

The fire and AFSCME unions also might be hit with a loss of their cost-of-living adjustments after contract negotiations this year. Those were cut out of the budget, but Mallory has said they could be restored if the financial picture improves or other cuts are found.

‘ pay, yet two council members gave bonuses to aides.