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.
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.