Becca Britton had big plans for Neighborhood Pets. The Slavic Village resource center had become a treasured asset, offering free or low-cost pet supplies to residents who are struggling financially. Adding a clinic was Britton’s next goal.
She eyed a neighboring vacant storefront for the expansion, and thought she had help to fund the project – a portion of casino tax revenues distributed to Cleveland City Council members.
Then-Council Member Tony Brancatelli sponsored legislation awarding up to $25,000 of Ward 12’s casino funds to Neighborhood Pets. He lost his re-election bid but the new council member, Rebecca Maurer, supports the project.
More than a year since council passed that legislation, Britton said she’s still waiting. She has not seen a penny. Neighborhood Pets and its community supporters eventually raised the money to cover the costs of the expansion.
The position Britton found herself in – repeatedly – has become all too familiar for folks betting on casino revenue funds: Hounding city officials to make good on their promises. Waiting months, sometimes years, for contracts and money to come through. And learning it sometimes gets “lost in the black hole.”
“For small organizations, that’s a lot of money. And that’s a lot of time to come up empty handed,” Britton said.
Council members say they are bombarded by requests for money, often for smaller neighborhood needs that haven’t caught the attention of the mayor’s administration. Their discretionary dollars, which include revenue from the state’s casinos, help fill in the gap.
But even as members pledge money to their communities, they say they struggle to navigate the city’s opaque contracting process. That leaves applicants wondering when their promised payments will arrive.
Maurer told Signal Cleveland that the Neighborhood Pets proposal is now pending with the Law Department.
“This is not a functional way to get money to grassroots organizations,” Maurer said. “What this has caused is such a strenuous process that the money is functionally unusable.”
With gambling, a promise of new revenue for neighborhoods
After Ohioans wrote casino gambling into the state constitution in 2009, early projections were rosy. State and local officials estimated Cleveland could receive $20 million to $29 million a year, according to media reports at the time.
The reality is far more modest. Cleveland nets about $10.4 million annually from the money casinos make on gamblers’ losses, for a total of about $117 million over the past decade, state tax data shows. Most of that money funds general city services.
About $17 million has gone to city council members, who divide the money equally 17 ways. That’s given them anywhere from $89,000 in 2013 to $116,000 last year to spend in their wards.
Council has fully spent about $10.3 million over the years, according to Finance Department numbers. Another $3.2 million has been committed to a project, but was not yet in recipients’ hands by the end of 2022.
To give out casino money, council members introduce legislation for their colleagues to vote on – a process that happens quickly and often without debate. In the last three years, council has passed around 190 pieces of legislation awarding casino dollars for local projects, including lawn care for seniors, grocery store gift cards, sports programs, events and neighborhood lighting. Some of those pieces repeated or modified earlier proposals.
After that comes a city contracting process that applicants and council members say is painfully slow and can leave small organizations hanging as they wait for reimbursements.
“I’ve been here for five years and I still don’t understand the whole process,” Ward 14 Council Member Jasmin Santana told Signal Cleveland.
Although that proposal appears stalled for now, council did take other action this week. Members passed legislation simplifying the rules for spending casino dollars, in the hopes of making the process easier to navigate.
But that legislation doesn’t change how the city draws up contracts, which typically need sign-off from multiple departments. Brancatelli, the former Ward 12 council member, said the city needs more staff to handle the volume of contract paperwork moving through City Hall.
“Whether you’re writing a check for a dollar or a million dollars, it’s pretty much the same process,” he said.
During this year’s budget hearings, Council President Blaine Griffin said that there’s a joke in the city – albeit an unfair one, he added – that contracts “get stuck” in the Law Department.
Law Director Mark Griffin replied that the city often needs supporting documents from contractors before handing over public money. A nonprofit might need to provide articles of incorporation and proof of federal tax-exempt status, he said.
“When we get packages or requests that are partial but not complete, it delays the process,” Mark Griffin said.
Bibb, now in his second year as mayor, has promised to modernize City Hall. One part of that work is moving to an electronic contracting system – eliminating the need for “wet” ink signatures on contracts printed in threes and fours, Finance Director Ahmed Abonamah said during budget hearings.
“It’s work that’s underway,” he said. “It’s unclear right now exactly when it’ll be done, but it’s a big priority of mine.”
An arduous process
For neighborhood groups who rely on the money, fixes to the process can’t come soon enough.
Debbie Gulyas’s Waterloo Alley Cat Project, a Collinwood-based volunteer group that traps, spays, neuters and cares for stray cats, has been waiting 18 months for the $5,000 promised by Ward 8 Council Member Mike Polensek in 2021.
Recently, after pestering the city and Polensek, a council staff member contacted Gulyas about the contract, though she said she has still not received the money.
“We can’t count on this,” Gulyas said. “I was so excited. I thought if the city could help us, even $5,000 would be a huge deal to us and take some of the burden off. I can see that it’s much more complicated than that.”
Polensek compared the casino spending process to “a frickin’ root canal,” adding that Waterloo Alley Cat Project is “not the only one” waiting for money.
“It’s easier to part Lake Erie than it is to get casino funds through this city,” he said. “And I’m not Moses.”
Stephanie Kluk, the owner of Future Ink Graphics, wanted to create a space to employ artists in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and also offer entrepreneurship training.
When a funder dropped out at the last minute, Santana raised the idea of using casino revenue funds to help build out the studio on W. 25th Street, Kluk said. After that, the city kept asking for additional paperwork, Santana told Signal Cleveland.
Kluk thinks her persistence – emailing or calling the city two or three times a week for nearly a year – is the reason why she eventually received part of the $25,000 in casino revenue funds promised to her.
“I definitely don’t think I would’ve gotten it if I did not, you know, really kind of hound them,” Kluk said.