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More Cleveland workers' unions oppose ‘People’s Budget’ charter amendment proposal

President of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association union, Jeff Follmer at the April 26, 2023 Cleveland Community Police Commission meeting.
Jon Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President Jeff Follmer said he is opposed to turning over control of any portion of the city budget to voters.

Several Cleveland unions representing the city's emergency medical services, police officers and more have joined the ranks in a fight against a new, citizen-driven proposal that would allow residents to propose and vote on how a portion of the city budget is spent through a process called participatory budgeting.

The unions said they're concerned the process could lead cuts to their already understaffed departments if funding is diverted to citizen-chosen projects or improvements.

With Cleveland’s EMS wages falling below that of many local suburbs and private sector jobs, Cleveland Association of Rescue Employees Secretary Timothy Sommerfelt said any cuts to the department could affect attraction, retention and services provided.

“If we can’t attract paramedics now, how are we going to be able to attract them if we tell them, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t give you any raises. We had to give them to an experiment in democracy?’” Sommerfelt told Ideastream in July.

The proposed charter amendment would start the “People’s Budget” with $350,000 for administrative costs in its first year before giving it a budget equivalent to 1% of the city’s general fund in its second year, ultimately reaching 2% by the fourth year after adoption. Sommerfelt said that would fall around the same time the union and city is due to negotiate a new contract.

After PB CLE, the group advocating for participatory budgeting, received validation of enough signatures in July to get their charter amendment proposal on the upcoming ballot, Cleveland City Council released a statement opposing the People’s Budget. The statement said that allocating 2% of the 2023 general fund, about $14 million, would mean massive layoffs and have a “devastating impact” on the city, including the possible total elimination of the city’s Public Health Department and a reduction of at least half of the EMS positions, among other major cuts.

Sommerfelt said he doesn’t believe EMS will see such a dramatic reduction of their workforce, but said a hypothetical 2% reduction across all of the city’s departments could mean a nearly $700,000 cut to EMS’s $34 million budget. That could mean the loss of one or two staffed ambulances, he said.

“These are not ambulances that are sitting around waiting for calls,” he said. “On a daily basis, we run out of ambulances and tell people, ‘You have to wait; every single ambulance is working.’ If we take another one or two ambulances off the road, that’s going to make that problem worse.”

Sommerfelt said he does not oppose the idea of giving residents a say in how their taxes are spent but rather the amount proposed.

“It puts us in this uncomfortable position,” Sommerfelt said. “We like the idea of direct democracy, but at the same time, we have to be able to have an ambulance available when people call 911 with a medical emergency.”

An ambulance leaves the former site of St. Vincent's emergency room. A spokesperson for Cleveland's EMS union said the closure means medics are transporting people from the now-shuttered ER to others in the city, stressing EMS resources.
Timothy Sommerfelt
Cleveland Association of Rescue Employees
An ambulance leaves the former site of St. Vincent's emergency room.

Meanwhile, Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association President Jeff Follmer, who represents the officers in the Cleveland Division of Police, said he does not support any citizen input on budgeting.

“Turning a budget proposal over to the citizens that don’t know the everyday life and what we need in our jobs can be very dangerous to the city and to the residents,” Follmer said. “We’re going through trying times, and we don’t need citizens who don’t know what they’re doing or talking about to figure out a budget.”

Similarly to EMS, Cleveland police officer staffing is significantly down. The department is short more than 200 officers and nearly 300 officers are eligible for retirement. The number of cadets in the most recent class of cadets to replace them counted in the single digits. Follmer attributes that largely to a lack of competitive wages, which he said could worsen if the city scales back its budget to make room for participatory budgeting.

“We need every little bit so we can keep our members and get new members,” Follmer said. “If you cut back and the city can’t ... make it more attractive to become a Cleveland police officer, and we’re still at the same numbers, the city will be more lawless than it is right now.”

PB CLE says they do not want cuts to emergency services

PB CLE’s organizers said they do not want significant cuts to the city’s emergency medical services and don’t foresee that as an issue.

“I think it’s more likely that a valid and very important public service like emergency medical services would see more funding rather than less because residents understand how important that is,” said Jonathan Welle, who serves on PB CLE's steering committee. “I think it’s very likely that you will hear residents propose projects that increase the amount of funding to services they value the most, such as EMS.”

They say that the 2% will likely not come from just Cleveland's general fund which funds city positions. The charter amendment includes language allowing up to 60% of the funding to come from the city’s capital budget, which pays for infrastructure and construction, as well as the general fund. That blend would allow for capital projects like the construction of a new neighborhood pool, as well as programmatic proposals that would use general fund money.

PB CLE Campaign Manager Molly Martin speaking in front of other PB CLE members at Cleveland City Hall.
Gabriel Kramer
Ideastream Public Media
PB CLE Campaign Manager Molly Martin speaking in front of other PB CLE members at Cleveland City Hall.

Ultimately, the onus would be on the mayor to decide how that funding is allocated, PB CLE said. The mayor’s yearly budget estimate, which is vetted and approved by city council, would determine where those budget cuts came from. City council, however, would not have final approval over the participatory budgeting projects.

PB CLE is not in charge of determining which projects would be approved, so they cannot say definitively how the emergency services would be affected, but the group points to other cities with participatory budgeting that have invested in nonpolice care responses and mental health crisis intervention as public safety measures.

“We think PB CLE and a People’s Budget will bring more democratic power to the surface and actually make the lives of working-class people in the city of Cleveland better,” Welle said.

More unions come out against November ballot initiative

In the months following the police and EMS unions' vocal opposition, several more unions representing Cleveland's workforce have said they oppose the measure, including the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, which represents 85,000 workers across nearly 150 local unions in the region.

"If you’re going to cut out $14 million from the current budget, it’s going to have big impacts," said Brian Pearson, the campaign and political director of North Shore AFL-CIO. "It could cause layoffs, restructuring, closing of departments."

Also joining the fight against participatory budgeting is the Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 29-member unions in the construction industry, and the union representing the city's firefighters.

Participatory budgeting “sounds like a good idea, a progressive idea, but it’s not,” David Wondolowski, executive secretary and business manager for the CBCTC said in a written statement on August 31. “I’m sure those behind the idea had good intentions, but the reality is participatory budgeting is a gimmick that presents a very real danger to a city budget that is already cut to the bone. Further cuts could do irreparable damage to City services and public safety.”

Updated: September 6, 2023 at 3:04 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include additional union opposition to the People's Budget charter amendment.
Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.