After serving two years as Baltimore City’s director of finance, Harry Black is preparing to pivot into the role of city manager for Cincinnati, Ohio and its almost 300,000 residents. After working to place Baltimore on firmer financial footing, Black is looking to encourage economic growth and improve government performance in Cincinnati.
As Baltimore’s director of finance, Black was responsible for the daily oversight and direction of all aspects of the city’s finances, from issuing bonds in order to fund capital improvement projects, collecting and administering all revenue, to managing the payroll for Baltimore’s 15,000 member municipal workforce.
Black, who grew up in lower Park Heights and graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, is most proud of his role in formulating and implementing the city’s 10 year financial plan, currently in its second year of implementation. Black credits Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake for commissioning the plan, and allowing him to do what was necessary to improve the city’s financial outlook.
“It’s in essence a business plan for the city of Baltimore,” said Black, “where the city is taking charge of its own destiny—to the extent that any city can in terms of the changing the dynamics of the economy and marketplace. A testament to that is the fact that three weeks ago the city received a bond rating upgrade from Standard & Poor’s, which is a mega accomplishment, particularly during these trying economic times.”
Among the changes brought about by the 10 year plan is a restructuring of Baltimore’s long-term liabilities, such as pension and health care commitments for city workers.
“We’ve been able to make structural changes that will be generating savings for the city, while at the same time allowing the city to reinvest back into the workforce—number one—and number two, to lower those long term liabilities and to also do some reinvesting back in terms of city infrastructure,” said Black.
The restructuring of the city’s pension plan came in the form of increasing employee contributions, among other plan design changes, Black explained, which reduces the city’s annual obligation to the pension and allows those savings to be reinvested elsewhere, such as the city’s infrastructure. The 10-year plan also looks for ways to reduce property taxes, which Black says are “just entirely too high.”
Black will officially step into the role of Cincinnati’s City Manager on Sept. 8. As city manager, he will be the chief executive officer overseeing all of the city’s functions, a role more akin to that of mayor in the governing structure of Baltimore City.
Black explained the role by way of analogy to a corporation, in which Cincinnati’s city council is its board of directors, Cincinnati’s mayor is the chairman of the board, and the city manager serves as the president and CEO, managing day to day operations of the entire company.
“It’s a major opportunity for me and it’s something that I just could not walk away from,” said Black.
Black’s vision for Cincinnati is a city that is growing economically, producing jobs, and serving as a model of best practices across its myriad functions.
“Cincinnati is on the upswing, just like Baltimore is, so the key is capitalizing on that and leveraging that, and supporting it and finding ways to accelerate that growth,” said Black, adding later, “we want to make certain that every segment of the Cincinnati community is participating in whatever economic prosperity that we’re able to achieve there, and obviously growing the local economy will be critical and central to that.”
A focus on customer service in the city’s agencies, and an emphasis on results-oriented governance will be central to Black’s vision.
“We’re going to be asking [Cincinnati’s municipal] workforce to do a lot more, we’re going to be asking the workforce to do things differently,” explained Black, “so at the same time we have to pay attention to it and nurture it, and make certain that it’s not a one way street, where we’re demanding of it without showing our appreciation.”
Black says that appreciation may be in the form of expressed gratitude but also compensation, giving the example of Baltimore’s pension restructuring, which instituted a wellness program for city employees and guaranteed two percent annual pay increases over the life of the plan.
“We’re asking a lot, we’re taking some away from certain areas, but we’re giving back at the same time,” said Black.