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City of Cleveland, Cleveland Politics, Cuyahoga County, Ohio City

Civic Commons Community Conversation offers citizens insight into City and County budgets

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PHOTOS BY CHUCK HOVEN 

(Top Photo) Wednesday, January 22, 2014, Civic Commons at the Bier Markt, 1948 W. 25th Street, Conversation about Cleveland and Cuyahoga County Budgets: (L-R) Cleveland Tenants Organization Executive Director Angela Shuckahosee, Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley, and Civic Commons Ideastream’s Andrew Samtoy.

(Bottom Photo) Wednesday, January 22, 2014, Civic Commons at the Bier Markt, 1948 W. 25th Street, Conversation about Cleveland and Cuyahoga County Budgets: Sue Alexander a member of the Board of Senior Citizen Resources in Old Brooklyn, lobbies for more funding for Senior Citizen Nutrition Programs.

Civic Commons Community Conversation offers citizens insight into City and County budgets

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, February 2014) On January 22nd at the Bier Markt on W. 25th Street, Andrew Samtoy of Ideastream’s Civic Commons hosted a community conversation on the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County budgets. The public forum offered an opportunity to gain insight into the thinking of Cleveland’s new Council President Kevin Kelley, and County Council Finance Committee Chair Dale Miller. Angela Shuckahosee, Executive Director of the Cleveland Tenants Organization, also participated in the panel, offering insight from the perspective of a non profit organization competing for a slice of city and county funding, as well as some thoughts on the City of Cleveland’s budgeting process from time spend working for Council President Sweeney’s office at Cleveland City Council.

Of the three panelist, Shuckahosee’s participation was perhaps most intriguing given the Guest Column she had written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer on November 26, 2013, titled Cleveland Browns stadium deal should put Mayor Jackson under microscope. The article appeared after Cleveland City Council, with little public discussion, approved by a 13 -5 margin a deal to give the Cleveland Browns $2 million a year for 15 years for stadium repairs and a new scoreboard. In the article, Shuckahosee questioned Mayor Frank Jackson’s contention that the City of Cleveland could spare the $2 million a year, so City Council shouldn’t worry about the deal. Shuckahosee noted cuts to social service agencies performing services in the city and said that some members of Cleveland City Council pointed out there are two Cleveland’s “one for the “haves” and one for the “have-nots.”  She then contended that the voices of the “have-nots” of Cleveland are being lost in the budgeting process.

The Civic Commons Conversation at the Bier Markt offered an opportunity for Clevelanders to learn about the City and County Budget Process and how their voices can be heard.

Council President Kevin Kelley offered an overview of the City of Cleveland’s revenue and expenditures. He said while some other cities have been filing for bankruptcy the City of Cleveland has balanced its budget each year and still has money for doing deals with developers. He said the biggest portion of the city’s revenue, about 55%, comes from the 2% income tax. Other sources of local revenue include property tax and administrative taxes. Kelley said the largest expenditure in the City of Cleveland’s Budget is for safety forces. He said, police, fire and EMS account for about 60% of the City’s General Fund budget. The second highest expenditure is for public works such as garbage and snow removal, he added. The city also has capital obligations for repairs and maintenance of property it owns, said Kelley, which it pays from a Capital Repair Fund.

Separate budgets exist for Water Department, the Airport, and Cleveland Public Power, which are all supported by fees from users and ratepayers, said Kelley.

County Council Finance Chair Dale Miller said Cuyahoga County has three major sources of revenue, the Sales Tax, Property Tax from the Health and Human Services Levy, and intergovernmental transfers from the State and Federal Government. He said expenditures for Health and Human Services account for the largest part of the budget about 50%, with Public Safety (i.e. the Sheriff’s Office and the County Courts) being the second highest area of expenditure at about 25%.  Miller said, the rest of the expenses for Cuyahoga County account for 25% of expenditures. Miller said Cuyahoga County has a practice of keeping about 25% of its funds in reserve. In this way, he says the County avoids having to layoff people in recessions and has money for emergency expenses.

Miller said Cuyahoga County is the only county in the State of Ohio with a two-year budget. He says the County’s two-year budget takes effect six months after the State of Ohio approves its biennial budget. During the six months between when the State Budget begins on July 1st and the end of the year, the County’s office of Management and Budget offers estimates of upcoming expenses and County Council holds open sessions on the budget. Miller says the sessions are streamed live on the Cuyahoga County website and residents have an opportunity to speak for 3 minutes at County Council meetings and committee meetings.

Kelley said Cleveland City Council receives the Mayor’s budget estimate each year at the end of January. It holds two weeks of budget hearings, and passes a budget generally by mid April. Prior to passage the legislation will get three readings at Cleveland City Council’s Monday night meetings. While Cleveland City Council has no provision for allowing time for the public to speak at its Monday night meetings, Kelley says public input at City Council Committee meetings is up to the Chairperson’s discretion. Unlike Cuyahoga County, the City of Cleveland doesn’t have a large reserve fund. Kelley says all budget changes have to be reconciled. He says sometimes there are funds left over from previous years in department budgets to help with this or individual departments may spend less than allocated on one project and have money left over to help reconcile an expense that goes over budget.

Shuckahosee noted that for nonprofits competing for City or County dollars there is often a lump sum of dollars set aside for a specific purpose. The organizations competing for those those dollars have to show they can meet the performance criterion set and provide the promised services to city residents. Shuckahosee referred to her Plain Dealer article about the $2 million a year given to the Browns stadium, noting the sentiment from those vying for those dollars is “There isn’t a lot of money. Why did this money need to be allocated in this way?” She noted it is like the cash strapped city saying, “We have an extra $2 million lying around – you can have it.”

Kelley defended the Cleveland City Council saying, Council people work for what is in “the best interest of the City of Cleveland.” He said City Council works to balance between the availability of funds and the needs of the citizens.

Shuckahosee talked about some of the critical needs of Cleveland residents that are not being met.  She said in a recent discussion about expanding pre-school attendance in Cleveland, one of the issues was that parents couldn’t get their children to quality preschools because of they don’t have adequate transportation. She talked about the possibility of Cleveland service organizations finding out how to compete for new revenue from the casinos now going to downtown interests such as Playhouse Square.

Kelley said people with concerns about issues should call their Councilperson. He said, “People who seek public office are here because we want to listen to people and do better.” He says Council people want to work to improve the quality of life of the people of the City of Cleveland.

Shuckahosee urged residents to call their representatives and city officials when they have a concern. She noted the truth in the saying the “Squeaky wheel gets the grease.”  Shuckahosee said it is her experience that, “People do answer their phones. The they do respond.”

Kelley, Miller and Shuckahosee all urged residents to come to public meetings and pay attention to the political process. There was some discussion about modernizing the method of communicating with residents about meeting times and agendas. Perhaps creating a list of people who regularly attend or who would like an email of meeting notices.

Miller says when considering the County Budget he “looks for things that are going to make people’s lives better and save money down the road.” He used early childhood education programs and drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs as examples of investments that will save money over the long term.

When asked about the tens of thousands of Cuyahoga County residents that stand to loose their food stamps because of the work requirement now tied to receiving food stamps, Miller said the Department of Health and Human Services was allocated $800,000 so workers could call food stamp recipients and let them know of the pending cuts and some job training programs they may access. When asked, if, with the Cleveland area leading the nation in job losses, those training programs would lead to real meaningful jobs, Miller admitted that was a problem.

Asked whether he would be willing to place on the ballot with the sin tax for the stadium and arena repairs a competing sin tax to fund education, job training, mental health services, and other needs of “the have-nots”, Miller said that the State Legislature specifically limited the sin tax to its renewal for its current use. Miller did not mention the lobbying from individuals in Cuyahoga County to make that legislation happen.

Editor’s Note: In late January, Cuyahoga County Council unanimously passed a measure to place a 20 year sin tax extension on the May ballot. If the levy passes, funds from taxing cigarettes, beer and wine would go toward funding repairs and upgrades at Progressive Field, Quicken Loans Arena, and FirstEnergy Stadium.

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