East Cleveland's challenges provide opportunities for a regional approach
The daunting financial problems of the City of East Cleveland are well known. Mayor Gary Norton states that the city has an annual budget shortfall of $7 million, and State Auditor David Yost sees the city’s financial situation as the worst among Ohio’s 251 cities. According to Yost, the city’s only options are bankruptcy, cutting deals with its creditors, or merging with another city.
Because it borders only two other municipalities, Cleveland and Cleveland Heights, those cities would be its only possible merger partners, and, while East Cleveland City Council President Barbara Thomas is on record as favoring bankruptcy, prevailing opinion—though not necessarily in East Cleveland itself—seems to be that annexation to the City of Cleveland is the most viable way to address East Cleveland’s problems. In April, Norton began to lay the groundwork for annexation, a process that he said could take up to two years—and considerable political effort—to complete.
Perhaps there are other possible solutions to consider, some of which have not yet been widely discussed, including having the responsibility for providing municipal services to East Cleveland taken over by Cuyahoga County—an approach that could be more beneficial to East Cleveland, less burdensome to Cleveland, and could provide an opportunity to examine and improve, from a regional perspective, our overall approach to local government.
The county taking responsibility for providing a wider array of services to local communities is one of the possibilities that accompanied county voters’ decision to adopt a charter government in 2009. Cuyahoga County was only the second of Ohio’s 88 counties to adopt a charter government; the first was neighboring Summit County—home to Akron—in 1979.
Charter counties are different from the state’s other counties in that they have home rule powers, much like a city, while non-charter counties are limited to the activities specifically set out for them in the Ohio Constitution. Though Cuyahoga County’s charter precludes it from imposing its municipal powers on unwilling municipalities or townships, it explicitly notes that Cuyahoga County government has the power to exercise “any powers vested in municipalities by the Ohio Constitution or by general law.”
Of course, Cuyahoga County is not set up to provide many of the services—such as fire protection or garbage pickup—that are typically assigned to municipalities, but it could contract for those services to be provided by other municipalities or private entities, and there are some services, such as law enforcement, that the county could perhaps provide directly.
It is realistic to approach East Cleveland’s difficult situation as a regional rather than a local issue, not only out of fairness to East Cleveland citizens, whose municipal income and property tax rates are among the highest in the State of Ohio, but also because the problems stemming from one ailing municipality’s inability to provide adequate levels of services to its citizens are likely to spread beyond that one municipality’s borders.
Cleveland is in a far better position financially than East Cleveland, but it has many problems and beleaguered neighborhoods of its own to deal with, and, in most ways, it already does the region’s heavy lifting. Cleveland Heights, East Cleveland’s other neighboring city, provides a much higher level of services to its citizens but is facing financial challenges of its own. The possibility of having either of East Cleveland’s neighbors provide it with certain municipal services is certainly worth study and consideration, but neither neighboring city would be well-positioned to pick up the tab for providing those services, nor should either be expected to.
Many of the public ventures that are successful in Greater Cleveland—Metroparks, RTA, CLEVNET, for example—are regional in nature, and Cuyahoga County’s still-nascent charter government provides us with another opportunity to work together as a region. The challenges facing East Cleveland, as well as numerous other communities in Cuyahoga County and elsewhere in Northeast Ohio, are often too immense for those communities to address on their own. Help from Columbus is not to be counted on, so a regional approach to addressing these challenges is likely to be the most effective and the most likely to benefit the entire region.
Vince Reddy is a FutureHeights board member and an 18-year resident of Cleveland Heights.