East Cleveland Mayor Holds Community Meetings on Bankruptcy, Merger

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At a council meeting this week, an East Cleveland resident named Juanita Gowdy said she's worried unplowed streets and potholes are becoming hazards for the elderly.

“I do not want them to break a leg. I do not want them to end up in the hospital with pneumonia,” she said. “And I'm just saying, do something with our street. And then we have a big hole…the hole was only this small at first. Now it's real big so a tire can fit in it."

It's one of many visible signs of financial trouble in East Cleveland. Last year the city handed over its rec center to a nonprofit. And a popular senior center is closed for now.

Mayor Gary Norton said there isn't enough money to fix these problems. At the council meeting, he said population decline and low incomes have undermined East Cleveland's tax base.

“East Cleveland has 17,000 people, 5,000 of whom work,” he said. “This place is built for and once inhabited by 40,000 people. Right now you have 5,000 people who are paying to operate the place that once housed 40,000 people. That math never works."

Each month the city scrapes together just enough revenue to make payroll. It's paying employees' healthcare claims when it can. Meanwhile, unpaid bills have surpassed $3 million—a lot for such a small place.

The state declared East Cleveland in fiscal emergency in 2012, and has been watching the books closely ever since. Ohio Auditor Dave Yost said the city didn't cut spending in pace with falling revenues in recent years.

“Right now they have a structural deficit. They are literally living paycheck to paycheck, and a stiff breeze off Lake Erie is going to push them over the edge,” he said. “The time to act in East Cleveland is now. And Mayor Norton is in the hot seat."

Last month, the mayor held a telephone town hall to talk through the city's options. He said he could deeply slash services, raise taxes, go through bankruptcy or merge with Cleveland. He ruled out tax hikes, and argued against bankruptcy.

In an interview, Norton said East Clevelanders should study merger as a possible option. He was careful to say that decision ultimately lies not with him, but with voters.

“If we are truly exploring our options, as a mayor, I can't stand in the way of people exploring that option. And more than that, I can't stand in the way of it getting on the ballot,” he said. “People must be allowed to answer those types of questions when we're facing structural deficiencies."

Recently protesters took over a busy intersection where a traffic light for weeks had been blinking red, creating confusion for drivers and pedestrians. Norton said the light is broken, and the city can't afford to fix it.

Among the protesters was Councilman Nathaniel Martin, a critic of the mayor's management. Martin has said a merger should be on the table, but in an interview he questioned whether East Cleveland would become another Cleveland neighborhood facing a lot of challenges.

“Cleveland has as many potholes and as many vacant properties as East Cleveland does. Being practical, they have more because it's larger," Martin said. "So will we benefit?”

Norton held another telephone town hall Thursday night—this one about the possibility of a merger with Cleveland.

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