by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, May 2014)Five of six Democrats competing in the primary election on May 6th to be their party’s candidate in the General Election for Cuyahoga County Executive attended a Candidates’ Night held by a coalition of health care, housing and human services organizations. The organizations asked candidates to respond to questions about critical needs in Cuyahoga County. Candidates attending the event, held at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry on Superior Avenue, were Walter Allen Rogers, Jr., Tim Russo, Shirley Smith, Thomas O’Grady and Bob Reed. Candidate Armond Budish failed to attend the candidates’ night.
At the beginning of the session, candidates each gave a brief summary of their background and qualifications for the position.
State Senator Shirley Smith said after sixteen years in the State Legislature, “I know I can make a difference.” She cited her work to sponsor legislation to help those living in poverty and her work on issues such as health disparities.
Thomas O’Grady talked of his experience in Military intelligence and international business relations, four terms as City Council President in North Olmsted and his current position as a 12th Grade Principal at Rhodes High School in Cleveland.
Tim Russo spoke of his commitment to promote justice to bring about peace in Cuyahoga County. He noted one of the few stories in all four gospels is that of Christ evicting the moneychangers from the temple. He said for too long Cuyahoga County Government has been a piggy bank for its richest citizens. “I want to flip that. The more money you have, the less interested I am in what you have to say about County Government. The less money you have, the more interested I am in what you have to say.”
Walter Allen Rogers, Jr. said the key to turning around Cuyahoga County is education. He said, “Children need to write for a half hour a day and read for two hours a day.” He stressed the need for education, saying if we focus on education we will solve the problems facing Cuyahoga County.
Bob Reid spoke of his 25 years with the Bedford Police Department, his rising through the ranks to become Bedford Chief of Police and eventually Mayor of the Bedford. Reid spoke also of his experience as Sheriff of Cuyahoga County for four years. He noted the Sheriff’s Office is the largest division of Cuyahoga County Government and his experience balancing the office’s $92 million budget.
Mental Health and Addiction Services
Moderator Len Calabrese spoke of Cuyahoga County’s funding of mental health and addiction services through the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board (ADAMHS). Calabrese asked candidates “If you had additional funding to invest, where would you support spending additional dollars within this broad, multi-system mental health and addiction services system?”
Shirley Smith said she would provide more money to supportive services to promote independent living such as housing, clothing and job training. She said she would also allocate funds to dental hygiene. She said without good oral hygiene individuals have a range of problems such as inability to smile and difficulty digesting food.
Thomas O’Grady said, “We need to be compassionate and support those in need.” Speaking of increasing support for mental health services, he suggested the $311 million allocated for the Opportunity Corridor should be refocused to issues like this.
Bob Reid noted that Cuyahoga County taxpayers recent passage of the Health and Human Services levy will mean an increase in the health and human services budget from $36 million per year to $40 million. He shared his experience as sheriff. He said of 2,000 inmates in the daily jail population, about 500 were on some type of psychotropic medication. He noted that while he was sheriff, in a three-year period in Cuyahoga County, three mental health institutions were shut down. He said many of the former patients ended up in jail. As sheriff, he said he realized that many of the inmates that were on medication while in jail, were not getting their medications after release. He said he instituted a policy where upon release inmates were given thirty days of medications, and reintroduced to psychiatric care so they would not continue to come back to the Cuyahoga County jail.
Walter Rogers suggested that there was a need to make treatment facilities safer. He said people feared going for help because of “thugs waiting to jump you and take your money.” Rogers said, “Get rid of the thugs in the centers so people don’t have fear.” He also suggested that the welfare system needed people that have time to work with youth. He urged programs to work with youth and make them stronger, so they can be of assistance to their parents.
Tim Russo said he was a supporter of a single payer health care system such as that in Great Britain. He said instead of spending tax dollars on the convention center, the Opportunity Corridor, subsidizing Wolstein’s development in the Flats and the Sin Tax, money could be spent to hire more doctors and nurses so people in Cuyahoga County wouldn’t be without health care.
Len Calabrese’s noted that foreclosures in Cuyahoga County are still three times the norm that existed before the national financial crisis. He asked the candidates, “What county resources do you plan on using to help stem the continuing foreclosure crisis in Cuyahoga County?”
Bob Reid said that in 2009, the Cuayhoga County Sheriff’s office was dealing with 250 – 275 foreclosures per week, a pace of 9,000 to 10,000 per year. Now foreclosures are down to 5,000 per year. He said one issue is to stop predatory lending. Reid noted the problem of foreclosures continues as hard working couples that lost their jobs in the 2009 recession are now losing their houses. He said he would direct individuals to groups set up to help people avoid foreclosure. He said he had a policy as Sheriff of “Never kicking out a renter, that didn’t have a place to go.” Reid suggested that he would support the initiative introduced by current Cuyahoga County Chief Executive Ed FitzGerald for a $50 million bond issue to raise funds to take down homes that need to be demolished and save those that can be saved. He said he would also tap Jim Rokakis of the Thriving Communities Institute, who as County Treasurer first warned of the impending foreclosure crisis, as a resource for advice on this issue.
Tim Russo said that having a person in a house in a neighborhood was better than having an empty house after foreclosure. He said he would protect homeowners or renters from being evicted from houses by instituting a policy of not allowing evictions unless “proof of ownership” can be shown. He said that 99% of the evictions happening now proceeding are initiated by entities that don’t have clear title to the property. He said, “Stop throwing people on the street,” he said noting the strip mining of the Slavic Village neighborhood by unscrupulous lenders.
Shirley Smith said there is a serious need for lenders to take ownership of properties. She said she sponsored a bill to stop third party tax liens in residential neighborhoods. She said it is a disservice to residents for Cuyahoga County to allow third parties to buy tax liens. She also suggested giving land banks more authority to do code enforcement and increased dialogue with banks and mortgage companies to avoid foreclosures.
Thomas O’Grady said he had worked with Jim Rokakis when he was trying to warn people of the problem of predatory lending. He urged more efforts to help people stay in their homes by talking with lenders. He urged property maintenance inspections of homes in danger of foreclosure so they don’t bring down the value of surrounding properties and creation of a regional system to “mitigate the issue of foreclosure.”
Walter Rogers talked about creating a five-year program to turn the foreclosure situation around. He noted there were five thousand abandoned houses in East Cleveland and about 15,000 abandoned houses in Cleveland. He suggested training young men and women to deconstruct and then rehabilitate houses. Rogers said the materials from two deconstructed houses could be used to rehabilitate a third house. “You keep people in the community and regrow the neighborhood by doing this, “ he said.
Local Government Fund
Another question for the candidates, involved state budget cuts to municipalities that have resulted in a negative impact on local Offices of Aging and Senior Centers. Calabrese asked, “How do you propose restoring funding to agencies and programs that maintain a safety net of services for older adults?
Shirley Smith said, “The way to do it is to got to the Governor and the State Legislature and fight like heck to get the budget cuts restored. She urged those fighting state budget cuts to look to libraries as an example of how to fight back, “Nobody fights harder than the library people,” she said.
Tim Russo suggested using a $14 million slush fund set up from Casino money due the County that has been used as an ATM for developers connected to the Greater Cleveland Partnership. He said those funds could be used to restore cuts to mental health services and senior programs. He also suggested that voters turn down the sin tax for the stadiums and arena and instead use that $260 million for social services. “The money is there. We have to stop letting billionaires dictate how we spend our tax dollars.”
Walter Rogers said because of budget cuts to senior centers, now there are one or two days a week that seniors don’t get meals. He said he would tell those voting on a budget, “All you practice eating just three days a week and see why what you get to vote on is important.”
Reid said the slush fund from the casinos was $7 million, not $14 million as stated by Russo. He said the local government fund received a 5% cut meant a local loss of about $30 million. He said the money from the casinos would not be enough to restore what was cut, and blamed Governor Kasich for looking to make another tax cut rather than restoring the local government fund.
Thomas O’Grady blamed the State Republican Party for the cuts in assets to local governments to curry favor with voters through an income tax cut. He called the state cuts to schools “absolutely devastating.”
In response to other questions all of the candidates were in favor of continued support of funding for MetroHealth Medical Center and assisting young adults aging out of foster care.
Thomas O’Grady was particularly outspoken about funding MetroHealth. He said instead of using the “Sin Tax to tax to take money from the most vulnerable part of the population and give it to millionaires that play ball for billionaires,” and funding an unneeded Opportunity Corridor, we should be committing public dollars to rebuild fifty-year-old sections of MetroHealth Medical Center. He called for new priorities, and new vision and a “change in course to benefit those in need.”
Jobs and Food Stamps
Another question involved a decision by Governor Kasich to require 29,000 single adults in Cuyahoga County to meet federal work requirements to receive food stamps even though Cuyahoga County has work and training opportunities available for only a fraction of this number. Calabrese asked, “How will you ensure that such opportunities exist and prevent the cut off of benefits to people who depend on food stamps to eat from month to month?
O’Grady said the work requirement is a great idea when there are jobs. It is a misguided policy when the jobs aren’t there. Of the County’s role, O’Grady said, “If the state doesn’t ship up, we have to step in and work to protect the vulnerable.”
Bob Reid noted the last recession was the worst recession since the Great Depression. The number of people on food stamps in the nation rose from 13 million to 42 million.” However, he said there are 7,500 manufacturing jobs locally that are going unfilled because people don’t have the skills to fill the jobs. He called taking courses, and receiving counseling on jobs sensible pre-requisites to receiving food stamps. He said as County Executive he would set up a liaison with academia to find out where the jobs are and where we are falling short in job preparation.
Walter Rogers said, “We have to take care of our own. Ask the 29,000 people “What do they want to do with their lives? What is their live ambition?” He urged education as the solution. He noted the cost savings from pursuing education – saying educated people commit less crime and have fewer health problems. He also said the problem of racism had to be tackled in order to help people acquire jobs. Rogers called Cleveland “one of the top five racist cities in the country.”
Shirley Smith said the problem with government is “we don’t try to stay ahead of the game. If people were properly trained, we wouldn’t hurt so bad.” She called for fast track training so people would be trained for the “jobs that pay enough for them to get into the middle class, and not need assistance.”
Tim Russo questioned why it has become the government’s role to train a business workforce. He said, “Why do we have to cover every cost of every employer?” He noted that when his father went to work for White Motor, they trained him and put him on the line. He said employers that want to hire a work force should “get good solid people and train them.”
Candidates all supported Cuyahoga County making a commitment to hire qualified persons with disabilities. Both O’Grady and Rogers shared their experience as veterans with service related disabilities.