When East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton delivered his State of the City address to residents on March 8 in the L. Reese Performing Arts Center at the East Cleveland Public Library, he tapped into equal parts percolating excitement and historic civic pride as he described the successes of East Cleveland leadership. More importantly, he touted opportunities to help rescue the eastside suburb from what is currently a staggering financial abyss.
"We believe that residents and businesses deserve the best our city can give them," Norton said. "Now, it may not always seem like the best, but we believe you deserve the best."
But that rally cry for solidarity, that plea for patience as partnerships are developed, stopped abruptly at the idea of a possible merger with the city of Cleveland. That idea is a simmering flashpoint in East Cleveland, a political third rail only one city councilman has cautiously dared breach so far.
Fact: You don't earn two terms as East Cleveland mayor by advocating such a move, even when the city is in fiscal emergency, running $5-million deficits and gathering titles from State Auditor Dave Yost like "worst city in Ohio" as far as finances go.
Norton assured residents that he was not talking about a merger when he spoke of regionalism, adding sequential emphasis almost theatrically: "Not a merger," he said. "You hear me? Not a merger. Not a merger."
Applause filled the room.
A merger has been the subject of backroom talks and idle commentary for decades, and would require voter approval from both Cleveland and East Cleveland, but it's lately been the subject of more focused debate. Comments by George Forbes in November, 2013, stirred up the latest version of "How to Fix East Cleveland" and concurrent rejoinders, from natives, that the city can fix itself.
In a seemingly out-of-nowhere interview with the Plain Dealer, the former Cleveland city council president, who remains one of the most powerful figures in Northeast Ohio, came out forcefully in favor of a Cleveland/East Cleveland merger.
"I just think the time is right to have the discussion," Forbes said. "And it surprised me to discover how many people feel the same way. I see a greater city through this merger. I really do."
Among those people that felt the same way, according to Forbes, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, were Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton. Forbes had been having conversations since early summer 2013 with principal politicians in each city and had filled a legal pad with names of supporters, he said in a later interview with Cleveland Magazine.
The most important name, of course, was Norton's. The East Cleveland mayor's tacit support, Forbes later revealed, came during an off-the-record conversation at the Call and Post, the eastside community newspaper where Forbes serves as general counsel.
Months before his State of the City "not a merger, not a merger, not a merger" decree, Norton firmly denied Forbes' comments as he was sworn in for his second term on Jan. 2.
"The newspapers and television stations have been saying that your mayor supports a merger of cities," he said. "I want to tell you tonight: That is not true. We are not supportive of those types of things."
Though Norton both ignored and outright rejected multiple requests for comment for this story, his latest reaction to the merger question, at least in the media, is more mild and vague. "I live in East Cleveland because I choose to live in East Cleveland," he told multiple outlets in standard non-answer answer form. "There are a lot of people and families just like me." Officially though, he has no official position.
Likewise, at least publicly, Jackson has skirted the question. "He's open to the discussion," said Maureen Harper, Jackson's spokesperson. "But the discussion isn't very far along."
That much is quite clear. The city of Cleveland hasn't even commissioned an official study on a possible merger and all that it would entail, though leaders recently asked the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University to aggregate existing information on such a process.
Meanwhile, several Cleveland city councilmen have latched onto the issue with both hands and full voice. Jeff Johnson, who many think will make a push for a mayoral run as Jackson's tenure ends, was the first vocal supporter. Cleveland, he and others argue, can bring economic development along the Euclid Corridor and financial and housing stability for a community with more than a quarter of its total land parcels vacant.
"The direction [East Cleveland] is going concerns me significantly, and I think that this is the solution for both cities," said Johnson, whose Ward 10 borders East Cleveland. "If we do nothing, we'll have a city that is the poorest per-capita city in the state of Ohio that will continue to drag down economically and socially the East Side of Cleveland."
While Council President Kevin Kelley is more careful "Although we manage ourselves responsibly, we still have a tight budget. We still have our own financial challenges that we're trying to stay on top of," Kelley told Scene. "We need to make sure that this isn't a net liability for the city of Cleveland." Johnson's council colleague Joe Cimperman is already onboard.
"It's an idea whose time is past come," he said. "This would be a game changer. This would be a national story of a win for Cleveland. But if we think East Cleveland is East Zambia, we're nuts. We're not the great saviors. There are benefits to both, but if one community feels like it's the donor and one feels like it's the recipient without also feeling like the other, I think it will fail miserably."
Cimperman is alluding to the ground game that got kicked into high gear when Forbes talked back in November: the campaign to educate and change the minds of voters in East Cleveland and Cleveland by the time the merger appears on the ballot. The hopes for that aim toward 2015, 2016, or even 2017.
Opposition so far is vocal and fierce on the East Cleveland side, and previous attempts at this very conversation, like when former Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis brought up the idea years ago, did not end well. The conversation, as history bears out, is decidedly one-sided.
This time, folks argue, it's different because Forbes is in front, and people listen to Forbes. But no matter what Forbes says or how many notebooks he fills with names, no matter how many politicians in Cleveland spread the good word and agree that a merger is the only solution, none of it matters if East Cleveland says no.
And voters are about to get an earful from both sides.
"East Cleveland is in a class of its own," Ohio Auditor Dave Yost told Scene in a phone interview. "They're in fiscal emergency, and nobody's had the size of structural deficits that we've seen in East Cleveland, nobody's had them going on as long, and no city has done as little to correct the problems."
One month after Forbes' interview, Yost's office blasted East Cleveland officials when the latest audits showed that the city had run a $5 million deficit in 2012. Its situation with the state was escalated from "fiscal watch" to "fiscal emergency." It was familiar territory; East Cleveland was previously labeled a fiscal emergency for 17 years, from 1988 to 2006.
Ohio has never had a city enter bankruptcy, but East Cleveland is hurtling toward that designation.
When the fiscal emergency tag is applied, a state advisory committee is appointed to supervise the city's spending and make recommendations. The state, however, does not grant the committee the authority to make any official decisions. As acting CEO, the mayor does basically as he pleases, even when that means submitting an annual budget that goes far beyond projected revenue, as happened this year.
General rancor has always surrounded these sorts of proceedings, as the mayor's office clashed with City Council over how to make the lean numbers work. Norton laid off employees in the parks and recreation department, two police officers and some administrative staff. And through retirement and the option to not fill open positions, the staffing of the three-square-mile, 17,000-resident city has been further chopped.
But those superficial cuts have hardly put a dent in numbers that stretch far into the red, and there's a real fear that at some point East Cleveland won't be able to meet the city's payroll, that the paycheck-to-paycheck routine is coming dangerously close to faltering.
"They should have started laying off people a year and a half ago," said Yost. "They haven't done enough. They're walking a tightrope without a net at this point. I think they're probably going to just make payroll. But if they have one hiccup at this point, they're going to come up short."
Which is where the advisory committee comes in. (George Forbes' daughter was recently added to the roster by Gov. John Kasich.) Norton himself did not attend the city's two financial recovery plan meetings, meant to work with the state's advisory committee, back in February. The state is currently waiting on a revised plan from East Cleveland to address recent budget issues.
Ohio leaves little room for anyone not named Gary Norton to do anything. There is no legal recourse the state could pursue – they can't force Norton to do anything but adopt a new plan every couple of months, and it would take a vote of council, and then approval by the state's tax commissioner to enter bankruptcy court.
Yost said that as long as East Cleveland can meet payroll and pay their bills, they can be in fiscal emergency and "limp along."
"But that's as far as the law goes in Ohio right now. The city of East Cleveland might be testing the outer limits of Ohio law. It may be time to revisit the law because apparently we're having a failure to communicate here. The city has to create a recovery plan to cure the problems that led to the fiscal emergency and then they have to do that on an annual basis."***
Two main problems have created East Cleveland's dire financial situation: a dwindling tax base and unbalanced spending. With 17,593 residents, East Cleveland takes in about $18 million annually. As the auditor noted to us, it's possible to run a city that size on that dollar figure, though he admits it might not be a city you'd want to live in.
Nela Park, the headquarters of GE Lighting, is the city's largest employer, but it's not like there are other GEs out there eager to set up shop in East Cleveland. Attracting businesses is hard enough with the city's reputation, let alone struggling to keep open the doors of those still operating. When Cleveland Clinic announced the closing of Huron Hospital in June, 2011, the healthcare giant took with it millions of annual dollars from the East Cleveland coffers. Though Norton negotiated a $20 million payout, that money is now gone.
There are success stories and new businesses, to be sure, but that long-held promise of University Circle, East Cleveland's neighbor to the west, exploding down Euclid in Superman fashion to stuff development dollars in the city's wallet hasn't moved as quickly as leaders would have hoped. It took years, for example, for the CircleEast Townhomes, a splendid, fully-occupied multi-family complex, to finally come to fruition.
Otherwise, Mayor Norton has tapped his extensive background in government – six years as executive assistant to former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, most notably, to apply for grants. That money is welcome, but it's not producing solvency.
"The things that the mayor would like to talk about, like interims of economic development, are long-term solutions," said Yost. "East Cleveland doesn't have five or eight years for redevelopment to occur along University Circle. That's not going to get them out of the current mess. They're going to run out of cash before that gets even close to reality."
There is a way to acknowledge that East Cleveland is slowly realizing some potential and that it really can't wait for that potential to mature and take shape. Folks that point to a brimming optimism in the city while projects like CircleEast come to completion aren't wrong to say that the city is improving, just as people like Yost and Councilman Nathaniel Martin aren't wrong to look at the numbers and wonder how much worse things can get – revenue, layoffs, payroll – before something historic happens.
"I think there's a certain lack of information out there, but my sense is that folks in East Cleveland know that things are bad. But it's hard to create a sense of urgency when a city's had as many kicks when they're down as East Cleveland has had," said Yost. "I'm afraid that this is going to come to a head much more quickly than anyone realizes. There may not be a lot of time for reasonable debate. The sooner you get the community talking about its future, the better off everyone's going to be."***
The Rev. Anthony Small is an imposing man. On March 23, the retired Cleveland police detective of 36 years officially took over as pastor of the Starlight Baptist Church on Euclid. It was initially held since 1956 by his father, the Rev. E.D. Small, who founded one of the first African-American Baptist churches in East Cleveland. The building the church now sits in was actually built by John D. Rockefeller in 1906.