Mayor Justin Bibb, who ran on the notion that Cleveland couldn’t wait for change, struck a more cautious tone Tuesday while defending his latest budget proposal to City Council members. 

The mayor’s second budget sets the city up to recover from the coronavirus pandemic while girding for future economic downturns, he argued. It also balances spending and revenue by cutting hundreds of unfilled city jobs. 

Bibb presented his budget to Cleveland City Council in an annual tradition that’s as much an airing of the city’s shortcomings as it is a discussion of dollars and cents. For four hours and 40 minutes, the mayor answered questions and listened to speeches that often veered far from budget lines and into the problems facing city neighborhoods.

“I’m frustrated by the pace of change, and I’m only in year two,” Bibb said in response to one question. “And one of the things I’ve learned is, unfortunately, change does take time. Change does take time. We are not going to see immediate resolution to systemic issues that we’ve seen in one year or two years.”

Instead, Bibb said, his administration and council can “get the trend line moving in a better direction.” 

The budget eliminates more than 250 vacant positions, including 142 unfilled jobs in the police force. The mayor and his administration say the move was necessary to balance the budget while still leaving departments room to grow. Even with the cuts, the budget supports about 650 vacant seats in the General Fund – among them 206 police jobs that will be difficult to fill. 

“We did not lay off or eliminate any current staff to achieve this balanced budget,” Bibb said. “However we did eliminate what we call chronically vacant positions, so we can truly invest in our existing workforce.” 

The Bibb administration expects to end the year with a narrow surplus of just more than $225,000. But thanks to federal stimulus money, the city has other protections should the economy take a dive. 

Cleveland carried over a $48 million balance of funds left over at the end of 2022. The administration and council also added $20 million to the city’s rainy day fund last year, bringing the total up to $65 million. Another $90 million went to a new reserve for payroll. The ratings agency Moody’s cited Cleveland’s reserve funds last year in its decision to upgrade the city’s bond rating

Finance Director Ahmed Abonamah answers questions from Cleveland City Council about the Bibb administration's 2023 budget proposal.
Finance Director Ahmed Abonamah answers questions from Cleveland City Council about the Bibb administration’s 2023 budget proposal. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

New focus for policing

Police staffing has plummeted over the last few years, leaving the city with fewer than 1,300 officers. That’s well below the goal of around 1,600 set by Mayor Frank Jackson in the years after voters approved an income tax increase. 

Ward 8 Council Member Michael Polensek said he did not think the city would be able to recruit the 180 cadets it has budgeted for this year. He also questioned whether the Bibb administration could thread the safety needle with non-police roles like violence interrupters and social workers. 

“I’m failing to understand how all this is going to come together or integrate to address the crime problem in our streets,” he said. “That’s what I don’t understand. And I’m hearing about that from the residents.” 

Bibb replied that he was also concerned with the number of killings the city had seen this year. Through the first week of February, police counted 23 homicides, more than at the same time last year. But the mayor said that police were “working their tails off” to keep the city safe, seizing hundreds of guns. 

“But let me tell you this: More policing won’t solve this problem,” Bibb said. “It won’t. We know that.”

The city is searching for a consultant to evaluate staffing across the Department of Public Safety. The review will examine not just the police headcount, but also the operations of fire, EMS and animal control, Bibb said. 

Rather than rely on sheer numbers, Bibb said he would look to “smart precision policing and law enforcement” – crime data analysis and partnerships with federal law enforcement, for example. He also hinted at plans to propose spending federal stimulus dollars on a special fund for violence prevention programs. 

Last year, Bibb won council support to expand a program that pairs social workers with police officers. But the mayor’s administration will face pressure during budget hearings to step up recruitment for traditional police jobs, too. Public safety leaders are scheduled to face council questioning on Wednesday. 

Mayor Justin Bibb, left, and Council President Blaine Griffin, second from right, prepare to discuss the 2023 Cleveland budget.
Mayor Justin Bibb, left, and Council President Blaine Griffin, second from right, prepare to discuss the 2023 Cleveland budget. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

Pushing for better, faster services 

Council members pressed the administration to speed up its delivery of services. They said it took too long to clean up illegally dumped debris, for instance, or to fund home repairs for seniors. 

Even though council funded a senior home repair program in last year’s budget, Finance Director Ahmed Abonamah acknowledged that the city didn’t get the money out the door. It took time to find people to do the work, meaning that money appropriated last year was still available to be spent this year.  

“There’s also just a shortage of contractors out there,” Abonamah said. “We obviously will take the responsibility for this not getting done, but there are a lot of factors out of our control for why the contract didn’t get put in place until the fall.” 

Polensek urged the mayor to deal with dilapidated homes, saying that building and housing complaints were the top call into his office. Bibb said he was looking to hire an “aggressive lawyer” to take charge of housing code enforcement. 

Council President Blaine Griffin said he wanted to make sure that the city retained control of assets like its golf course and airports. Bibb has encouraged the creation of a new nonprofit to manage the West Side Market. Council is now evaluating the mayor’s proposal to hire a foundation to oversee Highland Park Golf Course. 

“I share that same concern, Mr. President,” Bibb replied. “ However, I do believe for a long time we have not been good managers of those assets.” 

The mayor said he was open to bringing in outside operators of city-owned assets in order to make them generate revenue for the city. Bibb said the city also should find ways to redevelop the many parcels of vacant land that it owns. 

Ward 1 Council Member Joe Jones told Bibb that the city was growing too slowly, like “a little turtle.” But if council gave Jackson leeway during his 16-year tenure, members ought to have some patience for Bibb, too, Jones said. 

“I’ve had to deal with a lot of citizens in my neighborhood, some of which want you to walk on water,” Jones said. “And so I had to tell every one of them that you’re not Jesus Christ.”

Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio. He has more than a decade experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In 2021, he produced and hosted "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," an Ideastream Public Media podcast on the Cleveland mayoral race. He has also covered breaking news, opioid lawsuits and elections nationally for NPR.