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Cleveland residents narrowly vote against Issue 38 'People's Budget'

PB CLE organizers Jonathan Welle and Molly Martin watch the latest results of the PB CLE charter amendment proposal at the Connect Lounge in Cleveland.
J. Nungesser
Ideastream Public Media
PB CLE organizers Jonathan Welle and Molly Martin watch the latest results of the PB CLE charter amendment proposal at the Connect Lounge in Cleveland.

A citizen-led ballot initiative that would’ve given Clevelanders the option to propose and vote for projects using a portion of the city’s budget has failed.

Cleveland residents narrowly voted down the participatory budgeting proposal, also known as Issue 38, 51.06% to 49.94%. The ballot initiative, brought forth by the grassroots coalition People's Budget Cleveland, known as PB CLE, conceded defeat after Cuyahoga County Board of Election results poured in early Wednesday morning.

“This isn't the end of the story for building resident power in our city,” said PB CLE campaign manager Molly Martin in a written statement. “Instead, this is an early chapter in a much longer story to put the needs of our communities at the center of policymaking rather than corporate interests.”

PB CLE initially partnered with Mayor Justin Bibb to propose a participatory budgeting pilot program earlier this year using $5.5 million of the city’s federal stimulus dollars allocated by the American Rescue Plan Act. The proposal, which some council members criticized as undermining the city’s representative democracy, was ultimately killed by city council.

PB CLE was determined to see its vision realized and spent months drafting legislation and collecting signatures to get Issue 38 on the November ballot, which would have codified participatory budgeting in the city’s charter. The amendment would have eventually given the equivalent of 2% of the city's general fund budget, roughly $14 million, to the participatory budgeting process.

Both the city council and Mayor Justin Bibb expressed concern about the charter amendment. Whereas Bibb supported a pilot program, which would have tested how participatory budgeting could work, he said he did not find a permanent measure “financially responsible.”

More concerning, some council members said, was the hole the program would have left in the city's budget. After PB CLE's proposal was set for the November ballot, Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin warned of a “devastating impact on the city” that could potentially lead to “massive layoffs.”

Council had said a $14 million budget reduction could prevent the hiring of 140 police officers and eliminate the entire departments of public health, aging and building and housing and cause staffing cuts to the division of recreation staff and half of the emergency medical services. PB CLE’s leadership has called those allegations “inaccurate, misleading scare tactics.” They pointed to the potential to use some of the city’s capital funds, which does not affect staffing or salaries, though there is disagreement between council and PB CLE over whether or not participatory budgeting can use the capital budget or not.

City council led the charge on the “no” campaign with radio advertisements, billboards, signs and a debate with PB CLE organizers. The Council Leadership Fund, a political action committee controlled by Griffin that funded “vote no” efforts, raised more than $95,000 in September and October ahead of the election, campaign finance records show.

"Our voters’ commitment to Cleveland’s future and commitment to responsible governance is truly commendable — and this body does not take your votes and your faith lightly," Cleveland City Council said in a written statement Wednesday morning. "City Council is grateful for the people's trust, belief, and partnership in democracy."

The written statement also acknowledged the desire from some residents and organizing groups, like PB CLE, for more community involvement and said they will "continue improving" those efforts in the future.

"Issue 38 revealed we need to do more work on civic engagement, participation, and awareness. We will build coalitions to make this happen," the statement said. "We are indebted to you — the voters — for your commitment and willingness. We will continue working with labor, partners, and most importantly our residents for a better Cleveland for all.

Other groups, including labor unions representing the city's fire, police, emergency medical service workers and more, also opposed the measure, echoing elected officials' statements about how the reduction in the overall city budget would affect the city's workforce as departments struggle to retain and recruit employees.

After Issue 38's defeat, city council will maintain full control of the more than $710 million general fund budget. In early 2024, the mayor will submit a proposal and will be the subject of weeks-long city council hearings with various city departments before council members amend and ultimately approve the budget.

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.