When Phil Heimlich swept into office a year ago as a Hamilton County commissioner, his mandate from the voters was clear: Stop wasteful county spending and rein in taxes, all the while pushing managed competition and innovative investment ideas.

So, it's a year later. Where are we?

Heimlich leans back into his chair and smiles the Heimlich smile. He knows the question is coming.

A year ago, he observes, "I felt like a guy joining the board of a very large company, a company with a $2 billion budget, that was in decline. We had to face some brutal facts in this county. Taxes and spending were out of control."

There were no quick fixes to be found, no gizmos. But the commissioner is directing a deliberate process of department-by-department reviews (all conducted by outside examiners that he's hired). And, it turns out, Heimlich is willing to spend — but selectively.

"We have to start investing in the county. We put $2 million into an economic development fund. What I feel good about is, we haven't spent a dime of it yet. Someone proposed [using the fund] to plant flowers by the purple pedestrian bridge. No, that's not it. I am waiting for the right investment to come along. I want some business leaders to advise us on this."

What kind of investment is Heimlich thinking? "Maybe a housing development on county land. Not a junky development. A quality development."

There are technological investments to be made, as well. "There is a lot of money from the Third Frontier we can leverage."

SLOUCHING TOWARD REFORM

Heimlich pioneered the concept of employing outside reviewing firms to analyze county departments, laying the groundwork for taking competitive bids from the private sector. The comprehensive reviews — conducted largely by A.T. Hudson of New Jersey — go beyond auditing numbers, plunging into performance reviews and process analysis. "I don't believe government entities are very good at reforming themselves."

Heimlich has ordered the reviews mandatory. "We need to make people accountable. We are in the process of finishing the first round of department reviews ... though Hudson has already saved the county $25 million."

The process is slowly moving along, but Heimlich hopes taxpayers and businesses can already see a change in how things are done. "I think you'll find a more user-friendly process for building permits, for instance, without all the red tape."

And Heimlich has turned the tax levy process on its ear. "The Cincinnati Zoo levy is one of the few that has actually been reduced in the history of this county. We agreed that they'd reduce it $300,000 before allowing it to be placed on the ballot. And the Drake Hospital levy. We reviewed that and, facts are, Drake's costs appear too high." That levy, intended for the spring, was finally withdrawn.

"I want to run this county like a business," says the commissioner. "I have done some pretty intensive research, asking for the numbers on county spending for the past 10 years. Know what I found? County spending is going up two-and-a-half times the rate of inflation. Project that out 10 years from now, and our $2 billion county budget will be a $3 billion budget."

Heimlich predicts the stadium fund, paid for by county taxpayers to help build the Great American Ballpark and Paul Brown Stadium, will go into the red by 2005. "The projections were much too rosy. It will go into the red, by millions of dollars, and for years to come.

"I do not want this county to end up like the state of Ohio, in debt over our heads and raising taxes on anything that moves Which is what the state did."

His fight on the stadium front continues. Heimlich has hired attorney Stan Chesley to sue the Cincinnati Bengals and the NFL, accusing the team of illegally using its pro football monopoly to force the county to build a new stadium.

WHERE IT BEGAN

It was the stadium issue, in fact, that first propelled Heimlich into the countywide spotlight. As the Republican candidate, he decried the previous commission's support of the stadium deal.

"The theme of my campaign was to do more with what we have, not take more of what you have, not ask the taxpayers to reach into their pockets yet again," Heimlich says. "The people of Hamilton County felt betrayed because of the stadium deal."

Heimlich brought a sound and fury to the campaign, while taking time to rethink how county government works. He ticks off the goals he brought to this job: Bring in outside examiners and experts. Audit every county department, both for financial accountability and employee performance. Make Hamilton County competitive. Force government employees to battle counterparts in the private sector for every contract and job.

GOLF COURSE CRISIS

Managed competition is key to his political psyche. As is cutting frivolous waste (unions and bureaucrats be damned).

"My goal on Hamilton County Commission is [to see that county workers] give the taxpayers the best service at the best price. Monopolies are good for no one. When the city golf courses were in such terrible condition, the unions were holding up signs that read, 'Don't Let Heimlich Choke Cincinnati.' But then we took a real look at the finances ... and everyone agrees the courses [under private management] are now in much better condition, and revenues are at an all-time high."

On Hamilton County Commission, Heimlich is pursuing the same strategy as he did on City Council: Open county services to bids from private companies. "You know, in many cases elsewhere in the country, the government employees end up winning the competition. But that very act of competition forces the government employees to cut waste in their departments."

ARTHUR MURRAY'S GRANDSON

The Heimlich story begins early on.

Growing up, Heimlich remembers switching on the family's television set each week to watch his grandparents perform on their nationally syndicated variety show.

Not an experience, granted, to which the rest of us can easily relate. "Arthur Murray's Dance Party was a half hour of free advertising for my grandfather's dance studios," observes Heimlich today of the network program that ran for a dozen years and guaranteed Murray's name would become synonymous with ballroom dance in America. "The show also made my grandmother famous. She became the on-air hostess."

Talking family, it becomes clear that if there's anything Heimlich is more passionate about than slashing frivolous waste, it is this.

"My grandfather grew up in the ghetto in New York City," he says. "The poverty there shaped him; he became a brilliant businessman. At a party, I met a guy who worked for him. He told me, 'Your grandfather was a blankity-blank to work for, but he was a genius.' "

Heimlich recalls that Murray started by teaching dancing to Atlanta debutantes. Next came the mail-order business (sending out the legendary floor diagrams complete with emblazoned footsteps) and, finally, the chain of studios. "He quickly recognized what he was selling was not dancing, but social popularity. As a child, he was extremely lonely, an outcast. So he reached out to the outcasts, and dancing at the time was a key to social success."

The next question is painfully obvious. Phil, can you dance?

Heimlich begins to laugh. Not a good sign. "I never learned any dancing from my grandparents directly," Heimlich concedes. "But as I got older, I would go to parties and weddings and I looked like an idiot on the dance floor, so, yes, I finally went to an Arthur Murray Dance Studio. It was, well, awkward when they realized who I was.

"Before my wedding a few years ago," the commissioner adds, "I took more dance lessons so I wouldn't embarrass myself or Rebecca."

The conversation naturally turns to his marriage. "I'm 51, she is 34. I definitely married up," he notes. "I met Rebecca at a Conservative Forum function. I was there for ideological reasons. She was there only because a couple of her friends had dragged her there!"

The Heimlichs, who live in Mount Washington, are the parents of a year-old son, Henry Simpson Heimlich ("the Republican candidate for mayor in 2025," is how he describes his son).

DR. HEIMLICH'S SON

Fame and the Heimlich family just can't seem to keep apart. It was while attending Stanford University that Phil Heimlich first heard the words "Heimlich" and "maneuver" strung together.

"My dad is the greatest hero in my life," he notes of Dr. Henry Heimlich, the world-famous physician who developed the compression technique credited with saving thousands of choking victims across the planet. "He's always gone against the grain, always fought the medical establishment, always been the outsider. But he's always prevailed."

Phil Heimlich found fame of his own, of course. After graduating Stanford, he attended the University of Virginia Law School. He served as assistant Hamilton County prosecutor in the 1980s, and won seats consecutively on Cincinnati City Council from 1993 to 2001 (term limits prevented him from running after 2001).

Among his other achievements: Establishing Riverside Academy, a charter elementary school, in 1999; and winning the first-ever Torch Award for Community Service from Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (Heimlich is a Messianic Jew and born-again Christian).

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Flash forward to 2004. We are sitting in Heimlich's office, discussing the latest news.

In a move that shocked his City Council colleagues, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken has just used his State of the City address to change his longtime stance on managed competition. "I am now convinced that the benefit from managed competition will primarily come from wage and benefit reduction, and that will not serve well the working families of Cincinnati," Luken is telling the assembled media.

Heimlich can only call Luken's flip-flop on managed competition "a huge disappointment."

Heimlich cites a case study in how managed competition has just served the county well. The commission felt it was ill-served by the prosecutor's office, according to Heimlich. "There was a period when we were not getting the legal advice we needed. We needed an attorney at every meeting. Getting good legal advice when you are running a $2 billion business is critical. We went ahead and hired an outside attorney, Bill Markovits. And that competition made everyone work better. It's a totally different world now [with the prosecutor's office]. We get great service."

Heimlich's priorities for this year? Keeping spending under the rate of inflation. "I don't want to get into the cycle of over-spending as things are good, only to go broke when times are slow." Pushing the concept of gain-sharing (simply put, if a county employee discovers a way to save, they profit, too, providing incentives to save). And outsourcing. "One of the directives I've given is that anything that can be outsourced should be."

Heimlich's goal is simple: "Any service — [excepting] police or fire — will be open to competitive bid.

"I want to make certain that any company out there that wants to bid knows about it and is given the opportunity to bid."