"The state of the county is strong," said Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish in his third State of the County address Wednesday afternoon.
He presented a series of videos and data points on an array of topics springing from his central theme: that that the role of county government was to make life better for all residents.
To a full house at the Huntington Convention Center, Budish touched on the MetroHealth campus transformation, the Quicken Loans Arena renovation deal, neighborhood investment, workforce programs, the opioid epidemic, public safety and fiscal management.
His jokes, by and large, failed to land. But to his credit, he persevered.
Using the operative metaphor of musical chairs, Budish sung a familiar tune. He said that forces in Washington and Columbus were conspiring against local governments and destroying municipal budgets — this is true. Budish said they were removing chairs without warning.
"But with wise management decisions," Budish said, "we are building our own chairs."
He mentioned a new partnership with the county library system, a plan to increase the number of children in high-quality pre-K education from 2,000 to 4,000, a state-of-the-art crime gun lab, and healthy returns on investment from loans to JumpStart Inc. and the Economic Community Development Institute (ECDI).
He spent a significant portion of his speech, however, defending the Quicken Loans Arena renovation deal, a deal that county council authorized with limited opposition but one that remains hugely controversial (and in many cases reviled) among non-leaders.
"As remarkable as it is to accomplish one major project with limited dollars without raising taxes [MetroHealth]," Budish said, "we're doing two."
Budish continued to promote the lie that the public would be paying "half" of the total renovation project costs. He said maintaining the publicly-owned facility was "what voters demanded when they originally approved the Gateway deal in 1990."
"But even more than that," he continued, "we're making this investment because the arena is one of our most significant economic catalysts and job generators in the region."
Budish artfully said that the lease extension would keep the Cavs in Cleveland for another 17 years, until 2034. This is true, but the extension is only for seven years, as the current lease ends in 2027.
"Some have argued that we should take the public's $70 million [sic] and use it for human services," said Budish, "but that can't be done! The $70 million from the public generally comes from the project itself! If we didn't do this project, there's no $70 million sitting somewhere! We're not taking any money from existing programming."
Again, that's not true at all. Or at least it's grossly misleading. The $88 million from the city, for instance, comes from a portion of the admissions tax at the Q which would go directly into the city's general fund if not for the renovation. That already puts the public considerably above $70 million. As far as the county is concerned, a portion of its contributions comes from leftovers from the convention center (fair enough), but the general fund impact was estimated to be somewhere between $41-$58 million.
Budish went on to talk about neighborhood investments as a direct rebuke to those who have contended that the Q deal is "just another" investment in downtown.
"[Some people] said that we're ignoring neighborhood investments," Budish said. "Let me be blunt: they are just wrong." (He coaxed a timid round of applause.) "The fact — the true fact, not some alt-fact — is that we have invested in more economic development and job creation projects in Cleveland neighborhoods and throughout the suburbs than in downtown! Way more!"
He cited projects like the Variety Theater, the new Dealer Tire headquarters, and the IBM Watson project in Fairfax as specific examples.