Mayor Justin Bibb and Cleveland City Council to work out budget differences over the weekend

From right, Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin speaks with Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack, Ward 12 Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer, Ward 13 Councilman Kris Harsh and Ward 1 Councilman Joe Jones.
From right, Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin speaks with Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack, Ward 12 Councilwoman Rebecca Maurer, Ward 13 Councilman Kris Harsh and Ward 1 Councilman Joe Jones. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin and Mayor Justin Bibb are huddling this weekend to hash out changes to the mayor’s first budget proposal.

Council members spent the last day of budget hearings Friday questioning the Bibb administration on its plans to reorganize the mayor’s cabinet, with an afternoon session focused on additions and cuts to the $1.8 billion spending plan.

Bibb is balancing the budget using $56 million from last year’s surplus, which was boosted by the infusion of federal coronavirus aid. On Friday, council staff presented options for finding about $32 million in savings, including a hiring freeze until July 1.

“I want to be able to give the mayor a grace period and give him a chance to do this as well,” Griffin said. “But I also want to know and let you know this, ladies and gentlemen. This council is going to be blamed if this budget – we’re going to bear some responsibility if this budget is not right-sized.”

By 5 p.m. on Friday, council hadn’t reached an agreement on what to cut. Griffin said he plans to meet Saturday with his leadership team to continue talks. The council president will also meet with the mayor and Chief Financial Officer Ahmed Abonamah, a city spokeswoman said.

Council members also agreed on $5.1 million in proposed budget additions. Those ideas included adding two health inspectors, increasing funding for legal aid in housing court, boosting the municipal football league budget and continuing a youth arts program.

Also among council’s asks is $200,000 for Vision Zero, an initiative to reduce traffic deaths. Members are also seeking to bump pay for their executive assistants – who handle numerous constituent service complaints – from $48,000 to $55,000.

One way the city could save money is by not filling vacant positions. There are 683 jobs in the 2021 budget that were left unfilled at the end of last year, according to budget documents. Bibb is proposing to add 135 new positions on top of those.

But many of those vacancies are in police, fire and EMS, presenting a challenge to council members and city officials seeking to save money while funding public safety.

Council staff proposed finding about $3 million in savings by not hiring certain special assistants to the mayor and other project management staff. Another staff idea was to hold off on funding positions in the law department focused on Issue 24 while legal questions about the police oversight amendment remain unresolved.

Griffin stressed on Friday that he was not proposing to defund the voter-passed charter amendment, which mandates an increase in spending on the Civilian Police Review Board and Community Police Commission.

Council ended the day without agreeing to any cuts to the city’s head count.

Earlier in the day, members grilled Bibb’s top lieutenants on the mayor’s reshuffling of cabinet positions and changes to job titles.

Chief Administrative Officer Elise Hara Auvil told council that the city needed to modernize its outdated job titles.

For instance, the official title of many top cabinet officials is “executive assistant to the mayor,” even if they have been known for many years by other titles, like chief operating officer or chief of government affairs.

Bibb has also upgraded the job titles of certain officials whose roles are defined in Cleveland’s charter. The safety director is now the chief public safety officer and the finance director is now the chief financial officer, for instance.

These human resources nuances were a point of consternation for council members throughout this year’s budget hearings.

“We’re so used to dealing with those old identifications as to who is what, and that has changed. And so that road map has become confusing the last several weeks,” said Ward 8 Councilman Michael Polensek, the body’s longest-serving member. “I look forward to you bringing us into the 21st century, but bring us in where we all understand it.”

Griffin asked for a legal opinion from the law department on whether the mayor had the ability to change job titles.

During the budget process, council requested a list of staff and salaries within the mayor’s office. Pay for those positions, several of which are still unfilled, range from $60,000 to $145,000. That includes one strategist paid $105,000 to work about 30 hours a week, Auvil acknowledged in response to council questions.

Auvil said that city government was in need of a reorganization to get departments to improve communication with one another.

“We have been here long enough to recognize that the department silos are real,” she said, “that it will take strong leadership from our mayor and his team to break them down and implement not only Mayor Bibb’s vision for the city, but also the questions and the issues that you have raised during these budget hearings.”

With a deadline of April 1, council and the mayor are running low on time to hash out their differences. An amended budget will likely be read into the record in the coming week.

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