Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb used his second State of the City speech on Wednesday to argue that he’s begun to make the changes he promised while campaigning for the office two years ago.
He said the city would flex its enforcement muscle against slumlords and lead paint. He talked up planned investments in land assembly for job sites and development on the Southeast Side.
Drawn off of his talking points in an audience question-and-answer session, he said he wouldn’t tap the general fund for the looming Browns stadium renovations.
Bibb delivered prepared remarks for about 50 minutes in the auditorium of East Technical High School in the Central neighborhood. Afterward, he answered audience questions selected by the City Club of Cleveland, which hosted the event.
“My administration is not comfortable with complacency,” the mayor said during the speech. “We are moving forward, not backing down, and breaking down the barriers that, for far too long, have held our city and our residents back.”
In his speech a year ago, Bibb said little about his plans for the schools. Months later, the news that Eric Gordon would step down as schools CEO sent waves of surprise through the local philanthropic and educational world.
This year, Bibb placed Gordon front and center. The schools chief sat in the front row with Bibb’s mother. The mayor opened his speech by asking for a standing ovation for Gordon, who led the district for more than a decade.
“Eric, thank you for showing us every day what emphatic, purpose driven leadership looks like,” Bibb said. “Because of your tireless dedication and unwavering commitment, our kids have made significant and remarkable progress over the last decade.”
Bibb said the city schools must help students handle the emotional drain of the coronavirus pandemic. He said Cleveland was working with the state and Cuyahoga County to fund support specialists through the Say Yes to Education initiative.
But some major questions remained unanswered: Who will lead the schools after Gordon, and what direction will they take the district? Bibb said he was moving closer to naming a new CEO. He reiterated that he wants the new leader to close educational disparities and “double down” on the decade-old schools transformation plan.
Housing code enforcement
Bibb said legislation was in the works to crack down on out-of-state investors who don’t take care of their properties – drawing applause from the audience. The issue has become a major concern in Cleveland, where inexpensive but aging housing stock has proven attractive for investors and troublesome for tenants.
“Tenants in our city should not have to live with leaking pipes, dangerous mold, constant water damage, elevators that don’t work, and worst of all, no heat for months on end during a frigid Cleveland winter,” he said.
The mayor also made sure to thank Ward 4 Council Member Deborah Gray, Council President Blaine Griffin and advocates with the Morelands Group for calling attention to tenants complaints about properties near Shaker Square. The city is now in court against the properties’ owners.
Cleveland has also just taken a new step in the fight against lead paint, Bibb said. The city has begun filing affidavits in property records noting when homes have unaddressed lead paint hazards. The move, which Cuyahoga County has been doing for years, alerts future homebuyers to the presence of toxic paint.
Crime and policing
Bibb said he took office amid an atmosphere of fear about crime. As mayor, he said he’s advocated for a “precision” approach to cracking down on violence, using technology and partnerships with federal law enforcement against gun crime.
He said the city would begin an “aggressive marketing campaign” to recruit police officers. The police ranks have been dwindling as cities across the country struggle to hire. Bibb’s budget proposal this year closed 140 vacant police positions, while still leaving 206 jobs to fill.
The city has seen 35 homicides so far this year, keeping track with the elevated numbers of the past few years. Bibb said he would support police while he also backed the new, more powerful civilian oversight of the Community Police Commission.
“From day one, I have been building a city that has the back of its people – and that means a city that has the back of our police – the brave men and women who help keep us safe,” he said.
Bibb made no mention in his speech of the Cleveland Browns and the team’s city-owned lakefront stadium. But when asked by an audience member about lease negotiations with the Haslam Sports Group, the mayor said he wanted to “think differently” about financing the stadium.
Speaking with reporters afterward, Bibb said negotiations were still in early stages. He described the stadium as one part of larger lakefront development plans. The mayor has proposed a new waterfront authority, which he said could provide new revenue for developing the area.
“I’ve made it my mission to make sure that as we approach this deal, we do everything we can to limit the exposure of the general revenue fund to pay for ongoing maintenance of the facility,” Bibb said.
In 2013, Cleveland agreed to pay $2 million annually from the general fund for 15 years for stadium upgrades. Bibb said he hadn’t had conversations yet with the team about the possibility of the city receiving money from a future stadium naming rights deal.