Public safety concerns were top of mind for council members on the first day of budget hearings on Tuesday. Many expressed concerns of crime in their wards, alternative policing methods and nationwide recruitment struggles affecting hundreds of Cleveland’s public safety vacancies.
On Wednesday, Public Safety Director Karrie Howard took center stage to outline the department’s struggles, accomplishments and budget.
With public safety positions cut from the budget, how will departments fill remaining vacancies?
With more than 150 vacant uniformed police, fire and emergency medical service positions being cut in the 2023 budget, council members raised repeated questions about public safety recruitment and retention.
Cleveland’s Chief Financial Officer Ahmed Abonamah said slashing those vacant positions saves the city approximately $15 million to $16 million, though the department is still budgeted for more positions than are currently filled.
Howard said they are working on a variety of methods to attract and keep police officers, including:
- Hiring a recruitment manager
- Social media campaigns
- Attending job fairs, visiting schools, and being physically present in the community
- Negotiating a 7% raise for existing officers
- Relaxing grooming policies for uniformed officers, now allowing them to have beards and tattoos and to wear baseball caps
- Pay recruitment and retention bonuses from state American Rescue Plan Act funds
Howard said those efforts are already paying off, with more applicants in the current pool of candidates than last quarter.
The Marshall Project also reported that Cleveland’s police department is looking to recruit from historically Black colleges and universities in an effort to diversify the force.
Cleveland’s animal problem is getting worse
Council members grilled the head of the division of Animal Care and Control on why the city has not created a plan for the growing urban animal issue.
The division is responsible for answering calls and complaints concerning dogs and nuisance wildlife, including skunks, raccoons, opossums and groundhogs. It also oversees the city kennel and works to get pets adopted and reduce the number of euthanized animals.
Service calls, impounded animals, and nuisance trapping were all up in 2022, as were issues of abandonment, cruelty, neglect, injuries and unwanted pets, said Chief Animal Control Officer John Baird.
City Council President Blaine Griffin rehashed talking points from last year’s animal control hearings. He criticized the division for lacking a “comprehensive plan” for dealing with nuisance animals such as groundhogs. He said the animals are causing “irreparable damage” to homes, especially for senior citizens, who have trouble trapping the pests that burrow in their yards and under their homes.
The city has plans to curb the issue, Howard said, including:
- Increasing citizen education on how to avoid creating environments that attract pests
- Drafting a contract with Critter Control of Cleveland, which will take work orders from residents and set up traps
- Lending traps to citizens with a $20 deposit and picking up animals (aside from skunks, which Critter Control will handle)
Griffin expressed skepticism, saying that the budget seemed insufficient and there still does not appear to be a plan.
Ward 4 Council Member Deborah Gray again asked for another location for East Side residents to pick up city-provided traps, as the only available spot is at West 92nd Street and Detroit Avenue.
Other council members doubled down, repeating what they said last year and sharing stories of residents who have experienced persistent pest issues.
Emergency Medical Services proposal cuts vacant positions
Emergency Medical Services is budgeted to lose 28 vacant positions, though those jobs have not been filled for more than five years, Howard told council members. Though the overall EMS budget decreased more than $767,000 from 2022, an infusion of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act dollars allowed the purchase of new life-saving equipment and paid for training.
EMS lost 54 emergency medical technicians and paramedics last year, most of whom left for other opportunities in police, fire or suburban departments.
Pay has been a factor for some who decided to leave, EMS Commissioner Orlando Wheeler said.
Council Member Mike Polensek applauded the department for offering to reimburse EMS trainees after they complete their coursework to become paramedics. The training costs about $5,500 per person. In previous years, Polensek was critical of the practice of making EMS employees fund their own training while the city footed the bill for police cadets training to be officers.
Ward 17 Council Member Charles Slife noted that a living wage for a single person in Cleveland would be $15.33 per hour, 33 cents more than EMT trainees currently make. Slife used this MIT living wage calculator to get that number. Slife proposed increasing their pay to that wage, saying it would only add $3,000 to the training budget.
Fire department staffing to remain stable
Staffing in the fire division, which responded to more than 72,000 calls in 2022, is expected to remain steady, losing four positions. For the first time, the division has 12 female firefighters.
Fire Chief Anthony Luke said the city anticipates filling the current vacant 22 firefighter spots and potentially hiring more with the upcoming class of recruits. Due to typical turnover, they expect the total number of firefighters to drop below the budgeted allowance, but those slots would get filled with the next class of trainees.
Luke said the best recruitment tool for the department is to engage with the community and create positive experiences in non-emergency situations.
They plan to do so in upcoming 2023 programs, including:
- MomsFirst: A program meant to address Cleveland’s high infant mortality rate. Firefighters will provide referrals for supportive services to expectant mothers
- Save-A-Life: An initiative that will install a smoke detector in each residential occupancy within the city. The department will later request legislative support from council
- Bright Future!: The fire department will partner with Cleveland Metropolitan School District to introduce the work of firefighters to student
Diversity in the ranks
Luke said the division “has always been challenged with demographics.” He said his administration was not “running away” from that but sometimes conversations around diversifying the department are misunderstood to mean that the current firefighters, who are mostly white, are not the right firefighters. Luke said that is not the case.
“These are well-paying jobs and tax paying residents of the city have the right to know that their child, their grandchild there relatives have just as much opportunity to get these jobs as anybody else.”
What did Documenters cover?
In the morning session, officials focused on police recruitment and retention. Check out this live-tweet thread from Documenter Gennifer Harding-Gosnell for more:
Council members turned their attention to several Public Safety divisions in the afternoon. Officials discussed the proposed 2023 budgets for the Divisions of Animal Control, EMS, Correction, and Public Safety Inspector General.
Check out Documenter Rosie Palfy’s live-tweet thread on the afternoon session:
What’s already happened in budget hearings?
The first day of hearings kicked off with Mayor Justin Bibb walking Cleveland City Council through his 2022 accomplishments. Bibb first released his $1.95 billion budget estimate and spending proposals on Feb. 1, which includes nearly $711 million to cover the city’s basic operations.
Bibb’s plan to balance the city’s budget relies on eliminating more than 250 city jobs that are vacant, including in Public Safety, Public Works, and Building and Housing.
Council members had the chance to ask the administration questions and bring up priorities for the wards they represent. Council members expressed concern over issues of public safety, education and housing. They also probed Bibb on campaign promises like East Side revitalization.
Council members have the final say in approving the budget.
Signal Cleveland’s Nick Castele noted that while Bibb’s campaign slogan was “Cleveland Can’t Wait” the mayor struck a more cautious tone when presenting his second budget, telling council members that “change does take time.”
Find a recap of of Tuesday’s hearing here. What to know about the Cleveland budget hearings
Keep up with the latest from inside the hearing room
Find updates here from Cleveland Documenters or keep up with Signal Cleveland’s government reporter, Nick Castele.