In East Cleveland, Mayoral Race Unfolds Under Shadow of Fiscal Emergency

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The city of East Cleveland is one of Ohio’s most emblematic examples of urban decline. The city's population has dropped from 37,000 in 1984 to below 18,000 today. The foreclosure crisis, on top of years of decline and disinvestment, left more than 4,500 homes and apartments vacant. Two years ago, the Cleveland Clinic closed down Huron Hospital, a major employer in the city and home to coveted trauma center. East Cleveland was in fiscal emergency from 1988 until 2006, and it returned to emergency in 2012.

Against this backdrop, Mayor Gary Norton is in the final stretch of his bid for a second term.

At a recent candidate forum, Norton made the case that despite the city’s financial challenges, he’s brought in millions of dollars from the state and county to demolish vacant houses, and has begun to welcome in new development. But he says the office also carries a burden.

“And that burden is to restore the past 30 to 40 years that East Cleveland has been through," Norton said. "A place once known for the quality services and quality educational system and being a great place to live with wonderful things for wonderful people, needs to be restored.”

But the mayor and city council locked in a feud over how to fix East Cleveland’s finances.

In this year’s budget -- and with disapproval from Norton -- council cut about $3.4 million from what had been appropriated last year in the general fund. In an interview, Norton says the cuts forced him to lay off police officers.

“We don’t want to diminish our safety here in the city of East Cleveland," Norton said. "At the same time, we’ve got burdens most cities don’t normally have.”

Right now the city faces an immediate budget hurdle. The state commission overseeing East Cleveland’s finances says council hasn’t appropriated enough money to pay some city workers for the rest of the year.

Council President Joy Jordan, who is challenging the mayor for his office, says this should be a message to the mayor to cut spending.

“He’s going to have to look at his various departments where he’s exceeded the budget and realign them. He’s going to have to lay off, he’s going to have to cut the amount that he’s used, his waste, and he’s going to have to do what it takes to operate with less.”

The mayor says East Cleveland will have the revenues to pay for more appropriations this year. Estimates provided to ideastream by the state fiscal commission also indicate there are enough resources to cover the state's recommended increases. But Jordan says she wants more specific and detailed proof the city can afford it.

“We will actually increase the budget when we have actual projections, factual documentation to support where these additional dollars are coming from," she said.

Sharon Hanrahan with the Ohio Office of Budget and Management chairs the financial planning commission. She’s worried about what will happen when funds appropriated for some workers’ salaries run out.

“I’d feel better if council was in their chambers right now and were going over the budget," Hanrahan said. "I'm hoping that I am mistakenly worried about something that will not occur. But I will just feel better once those appropriations are in place.”

In an interview, Norton didn't say directly what would happen if the city ran out of appropriations to pay salaries in some city departments, but he strongly hinted at a possible outcome.

"If council increases the appropriation, then no layoffs," Norton said. "If council doesn't increase the appropriation, then what they're saying is they want us to lay off staff."

Jordan said she and other council members believe Norton has hired more workers since the start of the year. Norton says while the city has hired a couple police officers, the number of new hires is far lower than the number of people who have been laid off or found new jobs elsewhere.

Hanrahan said the mayor shouldn't hire more employees to replace those who have left. She said such a halt would help city and state officials gauge how much money council should appropriate.

All this is frustrating to Trevelle Harp, the director of the Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope. Harp has worked closely with the mayor on some issues, such as in helping secure a deal with the Clinic to pay the city $8 million after closing Huron Hospital. (Hanrahan says the city used the money to pay bills it was holding.)

This year Harp has led residents to push council to restore funding for police and community centers. He says the city is full of good people who deserve good services.

“There needs to be an adequate safety force in East Cleveland, because I think that that’s essential to inviting redevelopment to the community of East Cleveland and making the people who are here right now feel safe," he said.

The sparring between Norton and Jordan translates to starkly different campaign messages. Norton stresses the importance of maintaining city services and attracting outside investment to the city. Jordan is more focused on cutting spending and consolidating city departments.

And while those two battle it out in city hall and vie for votes in the neighborhoods, a third mayoral candidate hopes to best both of them. Vernon Robinson, a fashion designer and gas company employee, is stepping into politics for the first time. He says he’s sick of the impasse between the mayor and council.

“We are working here as a business to build East Cleveland, not to tear East Cleveland down," Robinson said. "But once you attend the city council meetings, the bickering back and forth between them and the city, we’re not moving ahead at all.”

Whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year will have to follow through on a recovery plan approved by the state. It includes reducing city workforce and exploring shared services for trash pickup and police and fire dispatch. The plan also has the city exploring jointly operating its Helen S. Brown senior center with the Golden Age Center, and the MLK Recreation Center with the Boys & Girls Club.

The election may resolve some of East Cleveland’s conflicts, but the winner of the race still faces a difficult road ahead.

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