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Council calls audible on mayor's stimulus spending plan, calls special meeting in unusual move

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CLEVELAND — Frustrated by what they feel has been a haphazard planning process of how to spend a half-billion dollars in COVID-19 relief money, a dozen Cleveland city council members have signed onto an effort to declare a special meeting for next week, bypassing council leadership in the process. The rare move comes on the heels of Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration outlining the broad objectives behind the expenditure of the first round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, which amounts to $255 million.

The primary purpose of the funding is to allow the city to recoup lost revenues as a result of the pandemic, including hotel and lodging taxes as well as income taxes. The secondary objective of the funding comes with very few strings attached to it, providing the city with the rare opportunity to embark on potentially transformative projects and programs.

Released last week, Jackson’s spending plan calls for the allocation of nearly $110 million to offset revenue shortfalls. Jackson’s chief of staff, Sharon Dumas, outlined the rest of the proposed expenditures at a virtual press conference last year. Some of the expenditures include new EMS vehicles and other public safety investments; $75 million for economic and community development initiatives and an additional $15 million for demolition of strategic properties.

The proposal came as a surprise to many members of council. There were two committee meetings earlier this year but neither meeting delved into the finer details of the spending proposal.

“My concern here is that for months city council members have been asking for a process so that we can deliberate how these funds should be used,” said Councilman Kerry McCormack (Ward 3). “We can directly interact with the community and our residents to come up with a wholistic plan for the $511 million.”

At Monday’s council meeting when the Jackson administration’s spending proposal was introduced, several council members including Councilmen Charles Slife, Mike Polensek and Kevin Conwell expressed concern and announced that they would seek a special hearing for Monday morning. Although the council president has the authority to call for a special meeting, individual members can bypass council leadership with a minimum of five members in support.

McCormack said a dozen council members have signed onto the effort.

Slife said the spending plans thus far have been devoid of much detail. While most council members agree on the broad categories that should receive investment — public health, public safety, infrastructure, housing — a true transformative impact will only come as a result of surgical investments, Slife said.

“The conversations that have we’ve had to date are all great ideas on a macro level. The reason that wen need a more deliberate process is to take this big ideas and to think through how to specifically implement them,” Slife said. “What’s important to me is that we’re not taking new dollars and using it to do what we’ve always done. This needs to be new, transformative, something different because our needs in this city are great. The purpose of the meeting on Monday is to have a deeper deliberation among the council members on how to specifically achieve that.

The initial round of APRA money was transferred into the city’s hands in June. McCormack said he has no interest in slowing the process down more than what is needed. However, he also acknowledged that City Hall is just weeks away from a major shake-up, including a new mayor for the first time in 16 years as well as a new-look city council.

“What we don’t want to do, at least in my opinion and I’ve shared this with my colleagues, is to just randomly spend this money without a larger goal of advancing equitable issues in our community,” McCormack said. “We want to know that after these dollars have been invested that there is an actual collective impact to make this city a better place.”

Ward 8 Councilman Kevin Conwell, who was also concerned about the planning process, said he was troubled by the lack of systems and oversight in place to ensure that the dollars that would eventually be spent actually bring a return on investment. “It’s not just spending the money. You have to evaluate the spending of the money so that you know the outcomes. You’ve got to have a report card… We have to let the residents know what’s going on with their money,” Conwell said. “These are still tax dollars. We say it’s coming from Washington but it’s still tax dollars. It’s still the people’s money that we need to be accountable for.”

The special meeting has been scheduled for Monday at 10 a.m.