Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb presents budget proposal to city council
For more than three hours Tuesday morning, Cleveland City Council members peppered Mayor Justin Bibb with questions about his budget and delivered speeches on the state of city services.
The morning session marked the start of hearings on the new mayor’s $1.8 billion budget proposal, which includes new spending on Bibb’s leadership team and allocations required by the newly passed police oversight charter amendment.
“This is a transition budget,” Bibb told council members. “This budget does not solve all the major challenges that we currently have in our city. But we believe it’s an initial down payment to build that foundation long term.”
Because general fund expenditures exceed revenues, Bibb is balancing the budget with $56 million left over in city coffers at the end of last year. The new mayor began his term with a carryover balance of nearly $132 million thanks to federal coronavirus relief funding.
In the longer term, Bibb said, the city must find savings and new revenue. The city faces pressures from inflation and possible changes in income tax collections from suburban commuters, he said.
Council President Blaine Griffin posed the first question of the meeting, asking Bibb to explain his proposed increase in spending on the mayor’s office.
The mayor is budgeting $3.6 million for his top staff. That’s about a 34 percent increase over what Mayor Frank Jackson budgeted for his office in 2021, although the former mayor spent only $1.6 million as his final term wound down.
In his opening remarks, Bibb said the spending in his office would help him better coordinate and reimagine city services. The mayor and Finance Director Ahmed Abonamah told Griffin that the proposal was within the realm of previous budgets for the mayor’s office.
In 2019, Jackson budgeted about $3.6 million for the his office, although he spent about $2.2 million by year’s end, according to past city budgets.
Bibb is proposing to add 135 more positions in the general fund – which covers basic city administration and services – than were in Jackson’s budget last year.
But the gap between budgeted jobs and actual employees is far larger. Bibb is budgeting for a general fund workforce of 5,038. The city ended last year with 4,220 employees covered by the general fund – a gap of 818 workers.
Much of the understaffing is found in the safety forces. According to Bibb’s budget, the city ended last year 238 police officers below the level budgeted for 2022. The budget also shows a deficit of 92 firefighters and 72 EMS workers.
“Historically, hiring freezes and chronic understaffing across the city of Cleveland has resulted in artificial savings,” Bibb said. “But let me be clear, that is not how I will run my administration. Understaffing affects the delivery of services to the citizens of Cleveland.”
Ward 16 Councilman Brian Kazy called the mayor’s budget “a little bit unrealistic” because it relied on a large carryover sum to balance spending and revenue. He also questioned whether the administration would be able to bring on enough police cadet classes this year to reach budgeted strength.
“I think we really do need to do some adjustments working with the administration on the budget,” Kazy said. “And this doesn’t even include the fact that you have to negotiate 30 union contracts, and I’ve never heard of a union contract saying, ‘Hey, listen, we want a dollar less.’”
Bibb said he wanted the city government to be “one of the best places to work,” competing for talent with other employers. He said he would work with council to “build a pathway to a balanced budget” by finding new revenues over the next five to seven years.
Council’s budget hearings continue through next week. The city must approve a budget plan by April 1.
“This body’s going to be fiscally responsible,” Griffin said at the end of the morning session with the mayor. “So we look forward to engaging you guys over the next couple of weeks, and hopefully we’ll get to something where all of our citizens will be happy.”