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Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb, city council spar over public safety during first day of budget hearings

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Posted at 7:30 PM, Feb 14, 2023

CLEVELAND — During more than five hours of intense questioning by members of City Council, Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb doubled down on the decision to eliminate 140 chronically unfilled positions at the Cleveland Division of Police and 100 other vacancies at City Hall — a decision, in part, that was needed to achieve a structurally balanced budget, the mayor said.

The topics covered in the first day of hearings regarding the 2023 general fund budget ran the gamut, including police staffing, crime rates, illegal dumping, the future of CMSD as well as various economic development initiatives on both sides of the Cuyahoga River. Over the next two weeks, council members will pore over each and every entry of the mayor’s 500 page proposed budget. The $1.9 billion budget must be finalized by April 1.

Bibb’s budget proposal is structurally balanced, meaning the city is not expected to be forced to tap into it’s cash reserves. Last year’s budget required an $83 million infusion of reserve funding in order to offset declines in income tax revenues that were brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In light of the city’s finances and the continued friction between wants and needs, Bibb acknowledged that some of his signature initiatives and desired changes will take time to implement.

“I’m frustrated by the pace of change and I’m only in year two,” Bibb said. “One thing I would ask for is hold us accountable but I know all of us at this table need a little more grace. We’re doing everything we can that people feel seen in the process.”

The main discussion point during Tuesday’s session concerned public safety, which accounts for more than half of the city’s general fund. Despite numerous council members, including Safety Committee Chairman Mike Polensek (Ward 8), questioning the elimination of the unfilled police positions, Bibb continually pointed out the fact that the positions have historically gone unfilled and, secondly, the precise, data-driven deployment of police resources will be the main factor in combating crime, he said.

“Let me tell you this: More policing won’t solve this problem. It won’t. We know that,” Bibb said. “My philosophy on policing is what I call smart, precision policing and law enforcement.”

Bibb pointed to the hiring of a half dozen crime analysts, which crunch data and intelligence from the division’s myriad of specialized units and identify crime trends and hot spots. This analysis allows Chief Wayne Drummond to better allocate and deploy law enforcement resources, the mayor said.

“More police won’t solve this problem. What will solve it? More thoughtful law enforcement and putting resources where we know we’re seeing the high trends of violent crime,” Bibb said. “I will tell you this administration is doing everything humanly possible to keep this city safe and secure.”

According to the CPD's most recent annual report, the division tabulated fewer homicides in 2022 (155) than in 2021 (170); a total of 25 fewer rapes year over year, and more than 400 fewer felonious assaults compared to 2021. However, the number of reported robberies increased by nearly 100 and reports of stolen motor vehicles increased by nearly 1,200.

The report also shows the median call response time for Priority 1 calls, which are the most urgent calls for service, increased by 7.5%.

Councilwoman Stephanie Howse (Ward 7) strongly urged the Bibb administration and council consider allocating a greater share of the public safety budget toward crime prevention initiatives and other programs intended to address the root causes of crime.

“After violence has occurred, that’s when police are involved. I’m going to continue to say this, I am not going to let up: If we are at over 50% of our budget is focused on after the violence happens, we’re not stopping the issue,” Howse said. “This budget is not equitable when it comes to preventing violence in this city.”

In his response, Bibb stressed that for most Cleveland residents, public safety remains priority one.

“The majority of our residents across the city want to ensure that we prioritize public safety and we’re going to continue to do that,” Bibb said. “Also, recognize that we are at a critical moment in this country where cities like Cleveland are also re-imagining public safety.”