Since Ohio voters legalized casino gambling more than a decade ago, Cleveland City Council has received more than $17 million in casino taxes to spend on ward projects.
Although the dollar amount is small compared to the city’s annual operating budget, council members say the money is crucial. They say it gives them flexibility to meet neighborhood needs that City Hall would otherwise ignore.
But little attention has been paid to how exactly that money is spent. Members typically approve their colleagues’ projects with little public discussion.
A Signal Cleveland analysis of casino legislation and spending records shows that City Council has used the windfall to fund its own system of direct neighborhood service that includes food aid, lawn care, economic development and infrastructure upgrades.
The analysis looked at more than 180 pieces of legislation that approved nearly $4 million in spending between 2020 and 2022. Signal Cleveland also examined records of more than a half million additional casino dollars that council members transferred to city departments for ongoing work, a move that does not require legislation.
Signal Cleveland found that:
- Council voted to approve the most money for neighborhood improvement projects such as outdoor lighting, vacant-lot cleanup, and new park trails.
- The second-largest sum of money went to economic development projects, which included support for small businesses and larger projects.
- More than half of the money council approved with legislation went to Community Development Corporations (CDCs). One CDC, Famicos Foundation, which serves neighborhoods on the city’s East Side, was approved for the most of any recipient.
Earlier this year, council and the administration held a heated debate over casino funds. Council Member Richard Starr proposed that council receive half of the city’s casino revenue, rather than the current 15%. The administration – which sends 85% of the casino revenue to the General Fund – pushed back.
Getting the money out into the community takes multiple steps: council legislation, contract agreements and – eventually – reimbursement payments. It can take months, and sometimes more than a year, to spend the money, leading some to call the process a bureaucratic “black hole.”
It’s a source of frustration for council members, who see themselves not just as lawmakers but as problem-solvers for neighborhood issues big and small. This year, council passed legislation to relax casino-revenue spending rules.
“We should be able to use this funding to really engage the community so we can take care of their needs,” Starr told Signal Cleveland.
The current process makes it hard to track exactly how much of the approved money gets spent on the intended projects across the city.
What types of projects did City Council approve the most money for?
Council voted to approve nearly $1.2 million for neighborhood enhancements, including the addition of outdoor lighting to Market Square in Ohio City, home rehabilitation through the Heritage Home Program, and vacant lot cleanup in Kinsman.
Council approved the second-largest amount — about $584,000 — for economic development. Those projects included storefront renovations and business expansions. Council President Blaine Griffin set aside up to $200,000 for the Meijer grocery store project at East 105th Street and Cedar Avenue, though council records show that the city had not spent any of that money as of March. Griffin said he was not sure if any of the money had been paid out.
Other projects included $150,000 for Slavic Village Development for economic assistance and job creation and $7,500 for Styles of Success, a salon in St. Clair-Superior.
In December 2021, council approved up to $20,000 for former council member Eugene Miller to cover the costs of repairing a collapsing roof on a building he owns on St. Clair Avenue. He said he has yet to receive the money.
Miller, who last served on council in 2013 and currently sits on the city’s Fair Housing Board, said he plans to use the South Collinwood building as an incubator for small businesses and entrepreneurs. One tenant currently uses the space as a photo studio, he said.
Council earmarked the third-largest amount of casino money for addressing food insecurity, which Griffin called a critical need. The $535,000 was for grocery store gift cards for council members or community organizations to hand out and for holiday food giveaways.
“We have people who often are struggling to pay bills and rising medical care costs and need help with food assistance,” Griffin said.
Arts and culture programs
Council also allocated $371,000 to arts and cultural events and programs, offering support to neighborhood painting projects, arts festivals, and educational events about Juneteenth.
The Broadway School of Music, located in Slavic Village, offers music lessons and instruments to people of all ages. The school was approved for casino funds it could use for operational support, according to Executive Director Barbara Bachtell. The school is still going through the process to recoup the $87,000 authorized by council in 2020 and 2021, Bachtell said.
Council greenlit $257,000 in casino revenue money for youth sports and enrichment initiatives. Ohio Elite Athletics Corp. used a $5,000 reimbursement in casino funds to cover costs of equipment for a football and cheerleading program in Ward 1.
Omar Williams, director of athletics, said without the funding, the cheerleading program could not have happened, and fewer kids could have played on the football team.
What entity was awarded the most money?
The Famicos Foundation was awarded more than $750,000 in casino revenue funds from 2020 to 2022. It was the highest amount allocated to a single organization. Executive Director John Anoliefo said the Community Development Corporation (CDC) has a broad service area covering three wards – 7, 9 and 10 — and does some work in other wards, too.
Council tapped Famicos to run multiple programs, including holiday gift card giveaways for groceries, food-distribution events, a senior lawn care program, and a program for preventing and eliminating blight.
Council members such as Ward 3’s Kerry McCormack and Ward 10’s Anthony Hairston stressed the importance of CDCs in public meetings, saying they provide essential services that otherwise would not exist. Anoliefo said many families would celebrate holidays without food on the table if the gift cards weren’t available.
“On the East Side, where we have predominant poverty, people depend on the $25 cards that they get to buy food,” he said.
More than half the money approved between 2020 and 2022 went to CDCs. Council members work closely with CDCs, which were created to help revitalize neighborhoods.The rest went to 50-plus different neighborhood groups, nonprofits and small businesses.
The CDCs are community-driven, Griffin said, and “understand the day-to-day needs of the community, and they have a vehicle where we can invest and make sure that, you know, the things that are important to the community get done.”
The CDCs also can afford to front money for a project or wade through the long reimbursement process while many small or grassroots groups cannot, Griffin said.
Not all casino money goes up for a vote. How else can council members spend it?
Council members don’t always need to pass legislation to spend casino money. Members can also direct the money to city departments for projects or to make purchases. In 2021 and 2022, council records show members directed more than $560,000 to city projects. About $351,207 of that was spent, with most of it going to street paving.
The direct spending also included about $9,500 for a floor scrubber at Halloran Skating Rink and just over $45,000 for Project Clean, a city program for cleaning and cutting vacant lots and maintaining vacant structures, parks and cemeteries.
Tracking casino revenue spending is messy. What’s still unclear?
Signal Cleveland used legislation council members approved to examine the types of projects and spending council supported.
But passing legislation is just a first step. It doesn’t mean that money is spent right away. It can take time for recipients to assemble the paperwork needed to apply for and receive reimbursements. Sometimes, council later amends or changes the dollar amount going to a project, the name of the recipient, or the city department overseeing the project. That means the dollar amounts in legislation don’t always line up with the amount that goes out the door.
For example, in 2021 council approved up to $115,000 to Slavic Village Development for home repair assistance. Expense records show the city has budgeted $100,000 but spent none of it as of March.
Could community members be more involved in spending casino revenue money?
More than 30 residents interviewed by Cleveland Documenters said they did not know how council used its casino funds in their neighborhoods. None could remember being asked for ideas, though they had plenty. (Hear more from residents below.)
Ward 7 Council Member Stephanie Howse said listening to what residents say they need is a priority. To boost community involvement, Howse suggested an open portal that lets residents apply for funding, citing the small grant program of NeighborUp, a community building network, as an example. (NeighborUp is part of Neighborhood Connections, which provides support for Cleveland Documenters.)
Council could also simplify the process for residents to request and receive the money.
“Everybody doesn’t have the big law firm, accounting firm,” she said. “They don’t have all that stuff.”