City Council's $400,000 for Public Square Upkeep Should be Contingent on Removal of Concrete Barriers


Transit advocates on Public Square Saturday. (Councilman Zack Reed and ATU Local 268 Prez Ron Jackson front and center.) - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Transit advocates on Public Square Saturday. (Councilman Zack Reed and ATU Local 268 Prez Ron Jackson front and center.)
Let's revisit this Scene piece from 2016 regarding Public Square, in light of the fact that Cleveland City Council yesterday green lit a $400,000 contribution for ongoing maintenance there.

At the time of the piece — this was the balmy spring before the RNC, when the Cavs were dribbling masterfully toward their triumphant postseason — Group Plan Commission Executive Director Jeremy Paris told Scene that there was a $3.8 million reserve to pay for ongoing maintenance at the Square. And that wasn't all. Paris said he hoped to raise $3 million more.

A sizable sum.

We don't know how much of that money was ultimately raised. But Public Square CEO Sanaa Julien told Scene Tuesday that these funds were raised from the corporate and philanthropic communities for ongoing programming, maintenance and operations.

"These functions for Public Square [cost] approximately $2 million per year at the current level," Julien wrote in an email. "We plan to increase our programming and we also know that maintenance expenses will increase as the property ages, due to wear and tear."

The public contribution is for basic upkeep, things like "maintaining the splash pad, power-washing walkways, snow removal, trash pickup and more." It'll be supplemented by $750,000 in annual support from business and non-profits, which funding (unlike the city's) will also help subsidize events.

A City Council spokesperson told Scene that this was not the first such contribution by Council. A similar sum was contributed for Public Square maintenance last year.

It seems reasonable to ask, in any case, how much it's costing to maintain downtown Cleveland's iconic "front door," to borrow an image from Councilman Kerry McCormack.

City Council, to its credit, asked for an itemized budget from Public Square reps at a hearing Monday. But then council went ahead and authorized the funding before it received additional details. Gah!

We're curious about the details too. How much is the WiFi costing per month? How much is a standard power-washing session? How primo is this lawn and garden care? etc.

Per Julien: "The funds are restricted to maintenance and generally cover the specialized surfaces, fountains, snow removal, power washing, flower bed maintenance and cleaning, etc. Public Square is a City of Cleveland park and it is not unusual for such an asset to have a line item in the City budget. Our total maintenance and operations budget is approximately $700,000."

The fact that Public Square is receiving money for snow removal initially caught our eye. Those responsibilities already fall under the city's Public Works Department, we thought. Specifically the Division of Park Maintenance and Properties. The estimated $16.5 million annual budget for that department includes the maintenance of all city cemeteries, athletic fields, vacant properties, the downtown Malls, the Cultural Gardens and the city's trees.

Included among the department's duties (see Mayor's Budget Estimate: pg. 330) is the removal of snow at "City Hall, Public Square and quadrants, Malls A, B and C and other facilities as directed."

A City Council spokesperson said that while the city plows the streets and removes snow around and outside the Square, removing snow within the Square falls to the Group Plan Commission.

(The Division of Park Maintenance and Properties also paid more than $500,000 for electricity in 2018, and estimated more than $535,00 for the same in 2019. Is this for the Holiday lights display on the Square? Or does that fall to the Group Plan Commission as well?)  
It may be, after thorough review, that the city's (now annual) $400,000 contribution is within reason, or even a good value. But it'd sure be nice to have these expenditures itemized. (Other cities might have even demanded to know exactly how funds were being spent before doling them out!)

All that being said, the gravest sin related to Public Square will continue to be Frank Jackson's. He installed concrete jersey barriers there in 2016 and refuses to remove them or to fund alternatives. It's one of the pettier and more spiteful actions of his tenure.

A story Monday suggested that the barriers may be removed. "The city’s public works department is trying to help find a way to replace [them]" City Hall reporter Bob Higgs wrote.

Public Works need not look far for solutions. A $2 million plan to replace the barriers with retractable cylindrical bollards has been on the books for nearly a year. It will cost $2 million. But yesterday, at a council committee hearing, the division of public works reiterated that old-time refrain: they didn't know where the money would come from.

Here's a radical proposal: How about the city budget? How about the rainy day fund, reserved for "economic downturn and one-time obligations" which, as of January, had a balance of more than $31 million?  

Wherever it comes from, Council should have made its $400,000 contribution to Public Square contingent upon the barriers' removal. Some members of council have acknowledged what everyone knows, that the barriers are an embarrassing eyesore. Councilman Tony Brancatelli reportedly even pressed the issue with Public Works director Michael Cox Monday. Good on him. But the legislature should put their money where their mouths are and force Frank Jackson's hand. 

Sanaa Julien might be compelled to get on the horn and tell Frank that 'enough is enough' with the barrier shit. 

No one has any idea what the hold-up is. But council should not be afraid to use its power to achieve something that virtually everyone would support. If it means that the city needs to cough up a few hundred thousand dollars from the Rainy Day fund to leverage some private investment to pay for the bollards and let Frank rest easy, fine.

But council, which voted to authorize the $400,000 expenditure at Monday evening's meeting, should hold onto that money. They should not hand it over until the barriers are gone.   

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