What comes after the tax increase

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hights city hall aboveCongratulations Cleveland Heights. We’ve voted ourselves a tax increase.

Nobody wants to pay more taxes, but by a vote of 7,573-5,135, the select group of residents who bothered to go to the polls on election day determined that it’s in the best interest of the city.

I happen to agree. But here’s a message for City Manager Tanisha Briley and members of Cleveland Heights City Council – and all the rest of us, as residents, who are responsible for keeping them focused: The successful campaign buys us time, but it doesn’t solve our real problems.

  • It doesn’t change the fact that Cleveland Heights is perceived by many people across the region as a place to avoid – either to visit or live.
  • It doesn’t change the fact that Cleveland Heights’ city government is considered by many – residents, business owners and outsiders – to be bureaucratic and frustrating.
  • It doesn’t change the fact that Cleveland Heights is an expensive place to live and work.
  • It doesn’t change the fact that our city’s population is still declining.
  • It doesn’t change the fact that Cleveland Heights is fighting to stand its ground amid rising waters, when it should be fighting to occupy higher, dryer and better ground.

Most of us have made a choice to live here for a variety of reasons – community, diversity, walkability, location – that together create a quality of life you can only find in an old, inner-ring suburb.

But living in an old suburb is expensive. Water lines rust, sewers crumble, old homes need to be repaired, old schools need to be reconfigured.

The truth about Cleveland Heights is that we’ve been losing ground for years in the effort to maintain quality of life here. When I was a kid, city employees rode scooters to bring your garbage to the curb each week – as they still do in neighboring communities.

Until the last recession, we had an animal control officer who would respond to calls about skunks and raccoons and stray dogs.

We had two swimming pools – though nothing that could compete with the kind of water parks other suburbs are building these days.

We had leaf pickup several times a season instead of just twice.

Over the years, we’ve given up dozens of amenities in the effort to manage costs while maintaining the critical services that define our quality of life. We barely miss most of them, but at some point you realize the amenities are part of that quality of life too.

I’m not calling for a return of backyard garbage pickup. The point I’m trying to make is that the tax increase we just passed doesn’t change the trajectory. It merely puts off the next round of cuts – cuts that were inevitable even before Gov. Kasich induced our deficit by balancing Ohio’s budget on the backs of cities.

But we can change this. Across the nation, inner-ring suburbs like Cleveland Heights are being rediscovered by people who once eschewed them. They’re hailed as the frontier of “new urbanism.” Everything thing we have to offer – population density, high-quality homes, walkability, diversity, access to population centers – is a hallmark of areas that are once again cool, desirable and investment-grade.

We already have active movements that attract investment by new urbanists – sustainability, bicycling, community building, arts, public education. The people who seek cities like Cleveland Heights aren’t necessarily looking for cheap living; they’ll pay the taxes to live in the right place.

But becoming that right place doesn’t happen simply because of the city’s age and location. To attract more than a trickle of visitors, home buyers and businesses requires our leaders in City Hall to step out of crisis mode, where they’ve been since at least 2009 (and probably much longer), and start occupying that higher ground.

Here’s the agenda for a 21st Century Cleveland Heights:

Stop scaring visitors away.

People from beyond immediately adjacent communities tend to avoid Cleveland Heights from fear that they’ll either be mugged or ticketed. I’ve written about this a lot, and since educating myself about policing in the city, my thoughts about the solution have evolved. But the problem remains unchanged: Non-residents who might support local businesses avoid the city because they perceive it’s unsafe even as parking and traffic laws are over-enforced.

Solving this takes both money and brains, but solutions do exist – some of which the city has been investigating. Yet, any solutions need to be applied holistically – not just solving one problem at at a time, but working together to address the big-picture goal of making the city a destination for people from across the region. For instance:

  • Parking meters that allow payment by credit card and smart phone.
  • Restructuring time limits on meters in key parking lots, so people can pay for their entire visit without, say, leaving in the middle of a movie at Cedar-Lee to feed the meter.
  • Take parking enforcement away from the police department. Assign the job instead to a small group of parking enforcement officers dressed in any color other than blue. People will still complain about tickets, but they won’t be able to make the case the police are doing the wrong work.

Increase transparency.

There is a pervasive mistrust of City Hall that is out of place in a community of this size. I don’t believe it’s because of corruption or mismanagement or bad intention. But it has been earned – over years of calcified management.

But if you haven ‘t noticed, we’ve turned over the entire leadership of our city in the last four years – all of City Council as well as the City Manager. The people who earned this reputation aren’t in charge anymore. So now’s the moment to root out those old cultural habits that still exist – unnecessary executive sessions, unanimous council votes on controversial issues, bureaucrats who would rather say no than risk supporting innovation…

These aren’t easy changes to make. It starts with residents making their complaints known to council members – beginning with a civil and cooperative spirit (because we’re all on the same side) but unyielding in demanding visible evidence of change.

Be easy to do business with.

For every business owner who enjoys working with the city (and there are some), many others will tell you it’s dogmatic, dictatorial, mercurial and frustrating. The city’s last two economic development directors have come and gone without making much of a mark. I don’t know if it’s because they weren’t the right hires and didn’t know what to do, or because they were stonewalled in trying to make it easier for businesses to set up and operate in the city. But we need to fix it.

Reinvigorate housing investments.

I respect the battle our housing department fights, to maintain an old housing stock while defending against absentee landlords and unscrupulous real-estate flippers. But the policies employed to do this also make it uneconomical for the right kind of investors to work here.

I spoke at length with a guy who rehabs houses for a living – looking for old homes with good bones in nice neighborhoods, and paying local contractors to update them. He has a sterling record and saved a beautiful house in my neighborhood that was rotting in foreclosure. The regulations here required him to tie up more than $75,000 in cash for most of a year. And then it took another six months to sell the house. “There are a dozen homes here I’d like to do,” he told me. “But I’ll go broke if I try. There are other places where I can do the same work without tying up all my cash.”

I don’t have a handy solution, but finding one should be high on the agenda.

Shape up our public schools.

This is not City Hall’s responsibility, but it’s a problem for the city. Young families won’t move here for a school district that doesn’t have a great reputation. Ours is just OK. All of my children have gone through the public schools here and have received a fine education. And the facilities project that’s underway should create schools that look like a place you want to send your kids. At the same time, I’ve seen five or six superintendents during my childrens’ journey through the district – and just as many educational visions. I’ve seen administrators’ heads spin as they reinvent entire curricula on the fly. We don’t need a STEM district, or an International Baccalaureate district or an arts district; we need a good, urban school district that is exceptional in its management, accountable to the community, and exciting to parents of young children.

Promote our assets.

Cleveland Heights is home to the most vibrant art community in Ohio. Some of the region’s most admired personalities live here – from celebrity chefs to musicians to architects to novelists to academic stars. It is a city of diversity, of culture, of ideas, of action. It has nightlife and neighborhoods, independent businesses and innovative non-profits.

So why do we allow our city to be defined by negative stories from drive-by journalists? Why are we passive in telling the world what Cleveland Heights is all about? We need to invest in our own reputation. Other cities do it all the time.

Instead, we let people think our city is beleaguered. Maybe, to an extent, it is.

But it’s less so than a week ago, before we voted for an income tax increase. As I said, that bought us time. City Hall’s challenge is to use that time well, by leading us to higher ground.

Comments

  1. Garry Kanter says

    Which I’m sure comes as news to councilpersons Stephens and Stein.
    ————–
    “But if you haven ‘t noticed, we’ve turned over the entire leadership of our city in the last four years – all of City Council as well as the City Manager.”

  2. says

    I’ve been impressed by the way this post has been received. There are a couple active discussions about it on Facebook and several other pages where it’s been shared.
    Some of the comments have been pretty hard to read – they speak a raw truth about the way our city government is perceived and what changes people need to see.
    I didn’t write this post out of anger or even frustration, but out of a sense that we’re at a moment when we can choose whether our future is better or worse – and it has a lot to do with our city leaders, because the private and non-profit sectors are working really hard and doing some great things.
    I also don’t intend to demonize anyone; I know our city employs many dedicated, hard-working and effective people. But I also know how organizations work, and sometimes they pick up habits that may have once been rooted in good policy, but over time become cancerous. They can be hard to identify and even harder to change.
    With that said, I think the discussions that are spreading across Facebook deserve to be collected in one place. So in the following comments, I’m going to paste some of the insights I’m reading. I’m going to include the individuals’ names because all of them posted on Facebook where there shouldn’t be any expectation of privacy. I hope this too is taken in the constructive spirit intended.

  3. says

    Grafton Nunes I have given up I am sad to say. The cost of living in CH no longer is worth it for me and my wife. The cost is rising, the service is not. The outright rudeness of city government and police, the diminishing of services, the frustrations voiced in almost every conversation with neighbors. We are bidding on a house in Collinwood and selling our house in CH. It’s time to move on. This article states the situation so well. For me, Issue 53 was the last straw.
    FROM FACEBOOK

  4. says

    Gayle Lewin this is a great article that i think shows the problems but also the opportunities for the future. my street is filled with young families that have chosen Cleveland Heights as their home for a variety of reasons. There are problems, but hopefully with an active public, things can change and get better. Although, in regards to garbage pick up, I wish we could at the very least get garbage cans, leaving bags of garbage on the lawn makes the streets a mess every garbage day.
    FROM FACEBOOK

  5. says

    Laurel Sheldon I too hope that the city listens – I have found the traffic ticket shakedown, the general rudeness and the “money shakedown machine’ of having been an owner of a non-owner occupied landlord an affront to human decency and in direct conflict of acheiving what the citie’s goals are.
    FROM FACEBOOK

  6. says

    Steve Sender i lived in CH for almost 42 years, moved to beachwood ten years ago for the schools. it amazes me how CH has declined in just the ten years i have been gone. i love CH and would move back in a heartbeat, if it was worth it. but its not. it’s difficult for a city like CH and SH to deal with the lack of payroll taxes from a business community like beachwood. i’m a CPA and i can tell you that almost every other city has had to raise the local tax rate so our governor can sit on his cushy rainy day fund and tell america how he has balanced the state budget (on the backs of the cities and their residents). some cities like euclid are pushing 3%. so get over the increase already. CH held out as long as it could. it was necessary to maintain the most basic services. CH is a large community to service. SH raised its taxes a few years ago. as far as the issues within the government, i can’t speak to that. i can only speak to the ghestapo police force that we all avoid like the plague.
    FROM FACEBOOK

  7. says

    Mike Dietzel Loved the article , says what everyone is thinking. I wanted to start a coffee roasting company that used a version of a CH logo except it was HC (heights coffee) and sent an email asking permission. Got an email response that said to the effect “No way in hell”, I decided that day to move further east. Moved to mentor and haven’t looked back. I still follow the city as i’m still a property owner in the heights. However, i’m losing faith in the city and seriously considering a strategic default on the property as the value keeps declining and they can’t seem to find a way to live within their means. (I know state cut funds, but that fight is over). However, raising taxes over and over is just making the city a pariah to people who have options. It just seems that the city is fine lurching from disaster to disaster.
    FROM FACEBOOK

  8. says

    Jim Cirillo Well written Bob. Here’s another idea on the parking meters. Get rid of them! ! If nobody comes to Lee Rd for example, and mostly they don’t, they don’t generate any revenue anyway. I think getting rid of the meters behind the Cedar Lee or behind Nighttown would be a step in the right direction. This would be much more welcoming in changing perceptions if the city.
    FROM FACEBOOK

  9. says

    James J. Roop Very well thought out! Just saw a FB post by a realtor friend showing a house in Gates Mills selling at slightly under what ours would go for and the property taxes are 40% of CH. I voted for the income tax increase but this community is approaching an unsustainable future if it continues current path. Your ideas for change are good, but probably need to be amped up
    FROM FACEBOOK

  10. says

    Susan Miller There’s a master planning process underway. Hello Heights residents! I attended the second steering committee meeting just to listen in. I learned a lot! I was stunned that a select 6 (perhaps someone was absent) good folks were gathered in the executive conference room to see the county’s presentation of current conditions and Vince Reddy and I were the only resident observers. The county planners invited feedback from the steering committee throughout the presentation – interjections, suggestions, additions, questions, disputations, corrections. At the end of the meeting, Vince and I were invited to give our comments or ask our questions. They even gave us small sheets of paper to write notes on which encouraged us to email, mail or call them (the county guys) with our thoughts and suggestions. Where was everybody else? I wondered. The massive presentation was to be posted at the city’s website… See Master Plan 2015 on the city’s website – October 27, 2015 Current Conditions. This is the power point, at least, sans discussion. Still, some fascinating data collected there.
    FROM FACEBOOK

  11. says

    Laura Gagnon Thank you for this article. You were more eloquently able to express my concerns, though I voted no on the tax increase. Cleveland Heights can’t give our family what we want: land (like an acre or more), and great public schools, so we are saving to leave, but being burried upside-down in what WAS an affordable housing investment has left us stuck here. I agree with your view: the city is sinking, flailing, plugging holes and there needs to be a reinvention of this city. I hope for the sake of the city that there are enough people who are determined to stay, who have enough clarity to see the inevitable, and are willing to help. Great article.
    FROM FACEBOOK

  12. says

    Ivan Munodawafa It’s like taking your medicine. I stand behind “make it easy for business to thrive here” 1000%

    In an area with students, hospital/Clinic employees etc why does Coventry not have late night food. Why are food trucks forbidden and what on earth is going on with the Cedar Lee intersection?
    FROM FACEBOOK

  13. says

    Ronda Snyder Please do not come out in support of another school levy coming up this Spring..you folks may be here to be CH cheerleaders but its gotten to the point where this system not only endangers our property values but our viable future. We need to demonstrate to ourselves and the world at large that we havent totally gone off the deep end yet. Housing turnover is not a viable acceptable future vision, nor is staying and foreclosing eventually because of costs due to failing schools. Please address this issue honestly and directly.
    FROM FACEBOOK

  14. says

    Jessica Chavi Cohen This is a fantastic article. I was nodding my head the while time while reading it. One thing that I concerned about as a member of the Orthodox Jewish community is the misperceptions and the sometimes local vitriol against our community’s decision to send our children to private religious schools. For our family, that’s the right place for our kids. That doesn’t mean we hate the public schools or hate the city. It also doesn’t mean as some have written in the heights observer that we are destroying the city’s community fabric. Our community should be appreciated for the diversity and stability we bring to our part of the city (not to mention the property and income taxes we contribute!), not pilloried solely for our educational choices. It also bothers me that the school board has this same tone and doesn’t reach out to dialogue with our community. If there was one thing that would really have me consider moving, it would be the escalation of this rhetoric that makes me feel like I’m not welcome in this city that I actually like living in!!
    FROM FACEBOOK

  15. says

    Jason Beard Interesting article, but he is wrong about housing code and point of sale enforcement. If anything, more stringent requirements should be in place. As a contractor and a realtor, I can tell you first-hand of the atrocities performed by investors in neighboring communities where there are no point of sale inspections. Exposed wiring, three layers of roofing, all covered-up with “lipstick.” Be grateful for the efforts of our building and housing departments. They keep the hacks from destroying our housing stock.
    FROM FACEBOOK

  16. says

    Denise Rynes No community is perfect, but I am proud to be a resident of Cleveland Heights for many reasons. If anyone wants to help build a PR campaign that highlights our strengths and assets, count me in!
    FROM FACEBOOK

  17. says

    Hank Drake-Ferrer I don’t live in Cleveland Heights, but visit Coventry and Cedar-Lee often. Bob Rosenbaum’s recommendations deserve serious consideration, particularly those dealing with law-enforcement, parking, and home rehab.
    FROM FACEBOOK

  18. Garry Kanter says

    So all the current crew – city manager Briley, Law Director Juliano, Chief Robertson, “Mayor” Wilcox, councilpersons Stephens, Stein, Dunbar, Coryell, Yasinow and Seren, plus former city manager Bob Downey, former Cheif Lentz, former Law Director Gibbon, the former utilities chief, former “Mayor” Kelly, two Boyds, Bonnie Caplan, the late Phyllis Evans, Ken Montlack, and all the rest just get a pass?
    With not a word of criticism while they were in office. And anyone who dared to criticize was cast out as “negative”.
    No. The same people and their enablers are in charge today.
    —————
    “The people who earned this reputation aren’t in charge anymore.”

  19. Fran Mentch says

    Most of the time the reason for a city’s decline is hard to discern.
    In the case of Cleveland Heights, our decline can be traced to a single issue–the former Oakwood Country Club.
    Oakwood was for sale for a year before First Interstate bought it for less than $4 million.
    Citizens worked with Trust for Public Land, who optioned Oakwood and wanted to turn it into a Metropark.

    City council members past and present and Future Heights turned their backs on this opportunity.

    Where would Cleveland Heights be now if Oakwood were a Metropark?

  20. Brian Wagner says

    It’s interesting that you focus on changing perceptions, in effect denying that there’s any reality behind those perceptions. Thus your solution is to manipulate people rather than address the underlying reality.

    Let’s start with the assets you list:

    -population density: An asset? Really? Please Bob, cite one social pathology that research doesn’t show corrolating positively with population density.

    -high-quality homes: well, if you define “high quality” as high maintenance thermal sieves.

    -walkability: Sure, if you wear kevlar. Every week the police blotter has at least one case of a pedestrian being threatened at gunpoint, if not shot at.

    -access to population centers: I can get downtown faster from the far side of Lorain County than I can from Taylor Rd.

    Ok, so a lot of the questionable asset value of those features is beyond anyone’s control. Let’s address your action items.

    Stop scaring visitors away: You’re right, a lot of outsiders stay away to avoid getting mugged, either by the those neighbors whose discivic culture you and other CH cheerleaders refuse to condemn, or by that paternalist, authoritarian city government y’all keep supporting. The city’s tendency toward “agricultural” governance, managing the city like a dairy farm and residents and visitors like cows, seeking only to maximize its milking yield, is a real problem, which will require more than a change in uniform color to resolve. Note that, in most cities populated by Heights diaspora, one can engage in an entire day of commerce without ever paying for parking.

    Then there’s the crime problem. Just look at the police blotter. Decades of governing to curry the favor of those who reject the social contract has left CH
    with entirely too large of a criminally parasitic subculture, and so far their only solution has been to impose fascist curfews on Coventry in the evenings. Yeah, THAT’S going to stop scaring visitors away – right.

    Increase Transparency: In a city government currently being sued for violating the Sunshine Law. In a city where a council member delays announcement of his resignation so as to deny opening up his seat in an election where an opposition candidate is making serious gains. In a city where public funds are spent on campaigns for tax increases in flagrant violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition on compelled funding of political speech. But yeah, it’s just an unfounded perception, right?

    Be easy to do business with: What you fail to grasp is that the difficulties only arise when the business type and/or the principal investors fail to align with the personal preferences of the city’s philosopher kings. It was SUPER easy for Steve Presser to dabble (with predictably disastrous results) in the restaurant business. Because he was the mayor’s personal political attack dog, the city GAVE (for anyone who ever thought that loan would be repaid, I have a bridge for sale) him the money to start his business. On the other hand, commercial property owners with ambitious plans have been told point blank by City Hall that they’ll be fought at every turn specifically because they’ve been outspoken school levy opponents.

    Reinvigorate Housing: HA!! I can tell you I’m not the first nor the last CH property
    owner who’s contemplated strategic default. The city’s longstanding paternalism with respect to housing has done nothing but harass and alienate those who can afford to maintain their homes, and encourage those who cannot.

    Shape up our public schools: Fat chance when both the administration and apparently a majority of the voters are laboring under the delusion that kids can’t learn in buildings less than a century old, when the most elite universities in the industrialized world successfully utilize buildings built in the 1600’s. More money won’t solve the problem, because it’s a parenting problem. Simply, far too many of the district’s students are parented by that segment that rejects the social contract, and thus, do not value education. It’s telling that many people are leaving the Heights for Cleveland proper, where the public schools are even worse, but at least outrageous taxes for a futile effort to educate those who don’t want to be educated don’t strip the ability of productive responsible parents to
    send their kids to private schools.

    Promote our assets: “Vibrant Art Community” translates into society paying for the dubious privilege of observing the catharsis of the disaffected and dysfunctional. It benefits mostly those who aspire to be artists but who lack either talent or a meaningful message to convey other than angry sour grapes nihilism. As for “drive by journalists” what you fail to grasp is that most of the negative portrayal of the Heights comes from former residents who’ve escaped and current residents who would like to escape.

  21. Brian Wagner says

    “I voted for the income tax increase but this community is approaching an unsustainable future if it continues current path.”

    Wow, that pretty much tells us the problem. You voted for another step down what you see as an unsustainable path.

  22. Brian Wagner says

    “The people who earned this reputation aren’t in charge anymore.”

    But their proxies and ideological clones are. They’ve seen to that through strategic resignations and other actions.

  23. Brian Wagner says

    Fran Mentch – “Most of the time the reason for a city’s decline is hard to discern. In the case of Cleveland Heights, our decline can be traced to a single issue–the former Oakwood Country Club.”

    Wow! Never mind that the decline predates the Oakwood sale by DECADES.

    “Oakwood was for sale for a year before First Interstate bought it for less than $4 million.”

    And no one stepped forward in that time to offer anything more. That’s called the marketplace at work, Fran.

    “Where would Cleveland Heights be now if Oakwood were a Metropark?”

    In FAR worse shape. A large, county managed and policed park on the border of CH and S.Euclid would be a disaster for CH, but it would probably do wonders for South Euclid. It would function much as the Rocky River gorge does between
    Lakewood and Rocky River, or the shoreway does between Cleveland and Bratenahl, forming a firestop for blight between the two cities and raising property values on the outer side, while concentrating blight on the inner side.

  24. says

    Bob, thanks for taking the time to write this. I recently chose to move to Cleveland Heights after years of looking at the surrounding area, Tremont, Ohio City, and Lakewood. I grew up in a large city and have spent most of my life in urban settings, the highlight of which was living in various parts of Queens several years. I found that Cleveland Heights provides some of the things I loved about living in New York (walkability, local businesses, diversity in both residents as well as cuisine, etc.), but allows me to be closer to family living in Lorain county.

    I really enjoy the home I purchased and the location, and I’m looking forward to contributing to the community!

  25. JEDALE says

    Thanks for writing about this topic to Bob Rosenbaum! After reading the suggestions for making CH a better place and one more attractive to business and residents it I realized that suggestions are the same ones that recent City Council Candidate Julie Love campaigned on for past 5 months!! Economic Development, lower taxes, a more welcoming business environment and parking improvements among other things!

    I suggest that Mr. Rosenbaum and others in agreement with him insist that Julie Love be appointed to the Council seat soon to be vacated by Jeff Coryell! The people have spoken and when the final count is tallied she will have rec’d nearly
    4000 votes! It is past time for the voters voice to be heard here in CH. It is not about what Council wants but what the people want!!

    Julie would be a breath of fresh air to the stale and failing community!!

  26. Bill Barrow says

    I’ve lived in northern CH for 15 years. Other than a couple on normal deaths of elderly residents and a couple of homes switching to rentals following the crash, I cannot say I’ve seen any difference. I’ve found the police polite and responsive. Yes, I’m sure there are services no longer offered and other measures of cost-cutting, but I’m always amazed when people criticize the city. Maybe they have good reasons, but count me among those willing to pay more to live here, having previously lived in Mentor and Willoughby Hills. Actually, I get annoyed at the critics.

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