Cleveland City Council members voted Monday night to change the rules for how they spend tax revenue from casino gambling, hoping to give themselves more flexibility in funding local projects.
Previously, city code limited casino funds to a list of purposes: economic development, street and sidewalk rehabilitation, fixing parks and playgrounds and uses allowed under the federal Community Development Block Grant program.
The new legislation replaces that list with less specific language: “projects that constitute a proper public purpose benefitting the general health, safety or welfare of the residents of the City in accordance with all federal, state and local laws, rules and regulations.”
Last year, Cleveland received $13.2 million from the state’s tax on casino revenues. Most of the money, or 85%, funds general services. The remaining 15% goes to council, which divides the revenue equally among the 17 wards. Last year, each council member received more than $116,000 in casino funds.
Richard Starr, the freshman council member from Ward 5 who proposed the legislation, said he has received many community requests for money since he won a council seat in 2021.
“And a lot of the things that they were reaching out for just couldn’t happen,” he said.
For instance, Starr said he could use casino funds to pay for gift cards to help families buy groceries, but not to purchase food for youth football or basketball teams. The community looks to council members to fund smaller needs that aren’t on the radar of the mayor’s administration – such as buying a fan for a recreation center, he said.
“Those type of things are stuff that are obviously not on the No. 1 list or priorities of the administration,” he said. “So, sometimes council has to do it.”
Ohio voters approved casino gambling in 2009 and what is now known as JACK Casino opened in downtown Cleveland as the Horseshoe in 2012.
Council approved the old casino spending rules in 2013. Attached to the legislation was a more detailed list of potential projects, including home repair, storefront renovations and street improvements. The attachment to Starr’s legislation removes references to the federal CDBG program.
Council members and neighborhood organizations alike have told Signal Cleveland that the contracting process for casino spending is arduous and opaque – leaving recipients waiting months, if not more than a year to be reimbursed for projects.
Starr’s legislation doesn’t alter the city’s contracting procedures. But officials from Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration said during budget hearings this month that they are working to modernize the way the city signs contracts and pays vendors.
Starr has proposed increasing council’s share of casino revenues to 50%. The Bibb administration opposes the idea, but Starr says he will continue pushing for a larger cut of the funds.