Update: Cleveland City Council approved a $1.8 billion annual budget on Monday, March 21; however, council did not approve the budget without both concern and changes, according to a press release. Council adding new positions — two in the Department of Health, one in the Landmarks Commission and one in the Board of Building Standards — and made the following changes, all of which add roughly $5.8 million to the budget:
Added $200,000 to Vision Zero, a traffic safety program council initiated.
Increased funding for the Right to Counsel program council initiated from $300,000 to $500,000. The program assigns free legal assistance to families with children who are facing evictions.
Increased funding for the Cleveland Muny Football League from $80,000 to $160,000.
Added back to the budget the Age Friendly Home Investment Program that provides $150,000 per ward for senior home repair. Council initially added this new program to help seniors in 2018, but it wasn’t included in the mayor’s 2022 budget.
Added back to the budget $150,000 for each of the 17 council members to assist in funding neighborhood projects including park or playground improvements, street repairs and other infrastructure. Council first added this in 2018, but it wasn’t included in the mayor’s 2022 budget.
Raised annual salaries of council members’ executive assistants to not exceed $55,000 from the current $48,000.
Mayor Justin Bibb’s proposed 2022 city budget was tested and scrutinized Tuesday, Feb. 22 by city council members concerned that the new administration’s plans could be too idealistic for the city’s real world financial picture. The kickoff of the annual budget hearings also acted as Bibb’s first sit down with council in his six weeks as mayor, with the conversation veering from official hellos to downright cries for help and attention from council members across the city.
The first day of budget hearings, which were held at City Hall, followed the Bibb administration’s release of its 2022 Mayor’s Estimate, the city’s 530-page proposed annual budget. With a general fund budget increase of $23.2 million from 2021, and generous hikes in both the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Public Health, the council put Bibb’s so-called “transitional budget” in check by asking, essentially: So, how are we going to pay for all that?
Bibb is planning on using $109 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars that are currently being carried over from the Jackson administration to hire for unfilled positions and create new top posts. The mayor claimed that fresh ideas for increasing revenue for the city — like updating Cleveland’s parking meters and launching a campaign to attract workers to come back downtown — would eventually, over time, balance the heftiness of 2022’s spending.
Notable hikes include:
A $1.1 million increase in the Law Department, mostly for the Civilian Review Oversight Board and a new Chief Ethics Officer to “embed accountability.”
A $17.8 million increase in Public Safety, including training 180 new police cadets, 80 fire cadets and 35 EMS.
A $2.1 million increase at the Community Police Commission.
A $5.5 million increase at the Department of Human Resources, with 14 new staff hires.
An 84% increase for the Boxing & Wrestling Commission, for a 2022 budget of $32,000.
The overall goal, Bibb said, echoes an oft-repeated sentiment heard on the sidewalks of his 2021 campaign: Put good money into great talent, and success will follow.
“What’s not realistic is to think that in one budget we can turn around decades of not really investing in the basics, and having a modern City Hall,” Bibb said to Council. “If you don’t have good talent, you’re not going to be successful.”
“Breakdown of city services”
In last week’s meeting, Bibb and Ahmed Abonamah, his chief financial officer, repeatedly defended the document by saying that it was a “transitional budget” that attempted to remedy the longstanding problems that plagued the Jackson administration before him. With 38 out of 86 tasks of his 100-day tracker complete thus far, and a successful All-Star Weekend to brag about, Bibb argued the resource infusion would begin to create the “modern, responsive city hall” that he promised the campaign trail.
Council members noted that it’s also possible that Bibb’s lofty spending goals, even backed by ARPA dollars, could potentially backfire come 2023, given that 66 percent of the city’s general fund is propped up by income taxes that could be threatened by employees working from home.
The message overall from council was one of constant alarm that the basic duties of a city, like trash collection, hiring additional police officers, handling illegal dumping or cutting vacant lots, had floundered under Bibb’s predecessor.
Ward 3 council member Kerry McCormack was among the most outspoken when he detailed the “fundamental breakdown of city services.”
“You can’t get a trash can replaced in the city without contacting your councilperson,” McCormack said. He went on to criticize Cleveland’s lack of smart parking services like credit-card ready meters (the city only has 24 debit-capable meters, according to the budget report), along with long due upgrades to the city’s 311 complaint line.
“The point is,” McCormack added, “these systems have been up and running in other cities for decades. We have chosen not to embrace them.”
Funding safety, securely
Noticing Bibb’s proposed hiring of 207 officers in 2022, a monumental task considering Cleveland police’s hiring difficulties, Council was especially skeptical. Many thought that the increase – costing $7 million – was unrealistic, even when the department is roughly 200 short of its recommended 1,700.
“I hope you’re able to find those people through HR,” said Ward 16 council member Brian Kazy, referring to Bibb’s modernizing overhaul of Human Resources as a lure for outsider talent. “Even (hiring) 180 officers is a reach. And that’s what we’ve traditionally been trying to get – nobody wants to be a police officer anymore.”
Council members Mike Polensek, of Ward 8, and Kevin Conwell, of Ward 9, saw the public safety budget spike as a cue to lambast Cleveland’s turn away from community policing and mini stations, two relics, Conwell said, that “didn’t exist” after the Michael White era.
Others, like Stephanie Howse, of Ward 7, used their minutes to hold Bibb accountable for his campaign trail promises regarding race and policing, mostly on the east side. In an impassioned speech, House said that before new officers are sent through training, the department needs to be rethought at the “philosophical” level.
“Talk to Black men, and see how safe they feel in this city,” Howse said, to a few verbal affirmations. They are “the people that feel over-indexed in this city. I struggle with it. And I struggle with it constantly.”
“That’s why I supported Charter Section 115,” Bibb responded, referring to his backing of Issue 24, a civilian advisory of the police, which passed in November. “But we have to be real, and be realistic. The city’s budget alone can’t solve that problem.”
Talks of public safety concerns segued into critiques on quality of life and housing availability issues. With out-of-state investors owning up to 40 percent of single-family homes in some Cleveland neighborhoods, council wondered if Bibb’s $800,000 increase from 2021’s budget was setting aside enough for its Building & Housing Department to aid incoming director Sally Martin in prosecuting code violations. (Most of the increase is for 13 new staffers, with four legal secretaries and a secretary to the director.)
Ward 1 council member Joe Jones saw the connection between housing and crime as the quintessential folly of the Jackson administration. Residents were calling daily about vacant properties on Judson Avenue in his ward, which he said was being used by gang members or gun-toting youth, stoking fear among peaceful neighbors. Calls to Building & Housing to deal with the vacant properties, he said, have been long unanswered.
Jones says he’ll drive to Judson himself, taking matters into his own hands.
“That’s just unacceptable,” he said, “that I, as a councilman, would have to go out there to see what’s going on. We’re having our homes shot up. We’re coming home from work, and people are waiting to rob us in our driveways.”
Bibb, maintaining his typical cool composure, ensured worried members that the transitional budget is a building block for the city’s future. “The budget does not solve all the major challenges that we have in our city,” he said. “But we believe it’s an initial deposit to build that foundation long-term.”
Mark Oprea is a Cleveland-based independent journalist who has written for National Public Radio, Pacific Standard, and many others.
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