Brent Larkin, Cleveland, March 26, 2015
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 ensure 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.
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.
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.
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.
[Editor’s Note: As the author indicates, East Cleveland is 93 percent black. According to the 2010 US Census, Cleveland’s population of 400,000 is 53 percent black and 37 percent white.]