East Cleveland Mayor Supports Merger With Cleveland
The Cleveland Plain Dealer published this article by Brent Larkin today 3/26/15.
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton has taken the first step towards the only thing that can save his city -- a merger with Cleveland. That merger involves a long, complicated process. At some point Norton might change his mind, or the idea may collapse due to lack of support in either of the involved cities.
But, to his credit, it's pretty clear Norton has decided there's no other way out of a dire financial crisis that can't get better, and is almost certain to get worse. "I have an obligation as an elected official to do whatever I can to insure the best quality of life for the community now and in the future," Norton told me. "Even if it means giving up my current position as mayor."
Within the next week or so, Norton and his supporters will begin collecting voter signatures to place on the ballot a measure asking voters to approve a six-member commission -- with three members from each city -- to negotiate a merger plan.
If voters in East Cleveland approve forming the commission, the Ohio Revised Code dictates Cleveland City Council would then either accept the decision to move forward, or decide against holding merger talks.
Cleveland would almost certainly agree to proceed with negotiations. The six-member commission would have 120 days to agree to a plan. That plan would then be placed before East Cleveland voters in an election.
If voters reject it, East Cleveland would slide into bankruptcy. If voters agree to the merger, Cleveland City Council could either accept the result and approve the merger, or leave the final say with Cleveland voters.
Meanwhile, Norton is inching forward on the merger idea at a time when fringe elements in his city are threatening him with a recall election -- an idea that would create political instability at the worst possible time. "I am doing this totally aware of the potential political fallout for me," said Norton. "In spite of those potential consequences, this (a merger) is something we at least need to explore."
From East Cleveland's standpoint, the evidence supporting a merger is so overwhelming that it's difficult to see how anyone could summon a logical argument against it. Bankruptcy is for cities burdened by huge debt, places like Detroit. East Cleveland doesn't have a debt problem. It has a revenue problem -- the worst, by far, of any local government in the state.
East Cleveland requires about $17 million a year to effectively run the city and provide residents with the services they deserve. Yet the city's annual income is about $10 million -- and declining, forcing it to borrow from nonpayroll funds to pay employees.
From a financial standpoint, State Auditor David Yost has labeled East Cleveland "the worst city in Ohio," a city that scrapes "the bottom of the barrel every payday." Helen Forbes, an attorney and East Cleveland resident appointed by Gov. John Kasich to the state commission that helps oversee the city's finances, put it this way: "We cannot survive this. It's beyond emotion. It's all about the numbers. You cannot operate this city on $10 million a year." With about 17,000 residents, the city has lost about half its population in the last quarter century. About 5,000 of those 17,000 are employed, 42 percent of the residents live below the poverty line. Home ownership has slipped to under 30 percent. And about 1,000 structures are classified as "distressed," meaning they desperately need to be demolished.
East Cleveland is now in a state of fiscal emergency, subject to limited state oversight, for the third time since 1988. As Benjamin Clark, an assistant professor of public finance at Cleveland State University's Levin College of Urban Affairs, wrote in a Jan. 14. Plain Dealer opinion piece, "The time has come for East Cleveland residents to begin envisioning a newfound sense of pride as members of the newest neighborhood within the city of Cleveland."
Norton deserves support from the entire Greater Cleveland community as he tries to save his city. Despite this avalanche of evidence crying out for a merger, a vocal minority inexplicably opposes it, as do perhaps a majority of council members. My family's roots in East Cleveland trace back to the early years of the 20th century. Many of the best days of my childhood playing baseball were spent at my grandparents' home at 13404 Fifth Ave. Nevertheless, some opponents to the merger are quick to play the race card when outsiders who care deeply about the city suggest any effort to fight the merger is essentially indefensible.
That twisted logic suggests whites have no business telling residents of a city with more than a 93 percent black population how to conduct its affairs. This isn't a black/white issue. It's a green one.
My guess is a solid majority of the people who live there have already figured that out.
Brent Larkin was The Plain Dealer's editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.
The interesting fact is that a merger of East Cleveland with Cleveland would not immediately effect the schools or library. The East Cleveland School system is separate from the City of East Cleveland and already includes part of the City of Cleveland Heights. There are other examples of School systems which include multiple cities or portions of cities for example Cleveland and Shaker Heights. The East Cleveland Public Library Board is appointed by the East Cleveland School Board. So a merger would have no immediate impact on the Library.