Cleveland City Council moves Mayor Justin Bibb's budget forward, with reservations

Council President Blaine Griffin sits down with members of Mayor Justin Bibb's administration on Monday.
Council President Blaine Griffin sits down with members of Mayor Justin Bibb's administration on Monday. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]

Cleveland City Council’s finance committee approved Mayor Justin Bibb’s first budget Monday, although many members said they were worried that the budget patches a general fund deficit with one-time federal coronavirus aid.

On a 7-2 vote, the committee passed the $1.8 billion plan on to the full council, a procedural step that essentially ends budget negotiations. The spending plan will be published Friday in the City Record. It then must sit for seven days before council can vote on it. A budget must be adopted by April 1.

If passed, the appropriations would leave a $62 million deficit in the general fund, to be covered with money — largely federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars — carried over from last year.

At the finance committee meeting Monday afternoon, Council President Blaine Griffin said he had “grave concerns” about the plan, although he would go on to vote for it.

“This council really didn’t want to vote for this,” Griffin told members of the Bibb administration. “The reason I’m willing to wear the jacket, and the reason I’m willing to say it’s on me around process, is because I’m reaching out to my colleagues and saying, ‘Let’s give the mayor an opportunity.’”

Voting against the city budget proposal were Ward 8 Councilman Michael Polensek and Ward 16’s Brian Kazy.

Cleveland’s revenues are still down from pre-pandemic highs as costs rise. One primary purpose of federal coronavirus aid is to help cities make their budgets whole against pandemic-related revenue shortfalls.

Last November, then-Mayor Frank Jackson said that the city avoided “significant” layoffs by using federal aid to cover what otherwise would have been a $49.2 million deficit in 2021.

Bibb’s budget estimate placed the 2022 hole at $56 million, which grew after the administration added $5.8 million in expenditures that council requested. Despite that deficit, the city general fund is expected to end the year $70 million in the black, thanks to the federal COVID-19 assistance.

Vacant jobs could be a source of savings

Eliminating unfilled positions became central to the debate over this year’s budget. Bibb is proposing to add 135 positions across city departments, on top of 683 jobs that were vacant at the end of last year.

Chief Financial Officer Ahmed Abonamah said that all hiring would require his approval as well as that of the mayor and the human resources director.

The new administration needs time to figure out where it can trim positions, he said. He pledged to provide regular financial updates to council and to keep a close eye on city revenues.

“We know that the head count – the budget, in general – is not sustainable. Full stop. We know that,” Abonamah said. “And our desired approach to addressing that is to take this upcoming period of months, slow down our hiring, do our assessment, and then come back to this council with what we think is the right head count.”

Council cobbled together their own suggestions for saving $24 million in the budget, according to a spreadsheet shared with Ideastream Public Media. Those savings included $7 million in new revenue from increasing ambulance fees.

The list of potential cuts included eliminating 28 positions in waste collection and 85 positions in the police department, on the grounds that the city likely won’t be able to hire those officers this year anyway. Also proposed was the elimination of empty assistant director jobs across the city.

Some council members criticized the administration for not proposing significant cuts of its own as budget talks entered their final days. Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell raised the specter of Mayor Jane Campbell's loss to Frank Jackson in 2005.

“She didn’t work with city council, and guess what happened? She was one term,” Conwell said. “I’m not threatening you, because I like Mayor Bibb. But I’m just telling you about moves that must happen.”

Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack, an ally of the mayor, said Bibb was elected to improve the city’s disappointing services – and he should be given a chance to do it.

“I believe in giving a mayor who’s been on the job 90 days the ability to take a look under the hood,” he said.

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