Port Nowhere

The Port Authority doesn't deserve a tax increase. It deserves to be dissolved.

This is a pivotal time in the relationship between the new Cuyahoga County government and Cleveland City Hall. It is also a pivotal moment for County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who supports the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority levy on the ballot this November.

The port is asking Cuyahoga County residents for a 400-percent increase in the taxes they pay to it. Instead, FitzGerald should have considered suing to dissolve the Port Authority to create a savings for taxpayers. The Port Authority is an agency whose time has passed, especially with the creation of a new county government.

The Port Authority was created in 1968 to maintain Cleveland's waterfront, attract shipping to the city's port and lure international trade. Later it was given authority to issue bonds for local construction projects, such as Eaton Corp.'s new office park in Beachwood and the new Veterans Affairs Medical Center in University Circle.

Its achievements in most areas have been less than inspiring. You can take a walk along our waterfront and see the meager results. I did, and found the stretch of steel, stone and glass from Cleveland Browns Stadium to East Ninth Street — past the Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum — to be cold, aloof and hard to reach.

For the most part, City Hall has used the Port Authority to create the illusion that something important is happening on Cleveland's lakefront. In April, the city planning commission approved the mayor's waterfront plan, the second in eight years. Thus far, the plan has attracted little interest from developers and no commitments. The truth is, the city has neither the money nor the ability to create any meaningful projects.

FitzGerald should have considered this before endorsing a tax of this magnitude for what simply has become an extension of Cleveland City Hall. The proposed levy is an increase from 0.13 mills to 0.67, or $16.50 more a year on a $100,000 house. It is really a way to funnel money from the suburbs to a city that has suffered from indifferent leadership and decades of population loss. Suburbanites are not even fairly represented on the nine-person Port Authority board. Six of its members are selected by the city.

The original arrangement was supposed to be temporary. When the partnership between the city and the county was made in 1968, the agreement called for further negotiations about how many board members each would appoint. That never occurred — which gives the county legal leverage to try to pull the plug on the port.

Since then, the city's population has dropped from 751,000 to 396,000. Now more than twice as many people live in Cuyahoga County's suburbs as in Cleveland.

The city would likely be incapable of funding the Port Authority alone, so the county government could sue to dissolve the Port Authority and then fold it into its economic development efforts. That way the costs to the public would not be redundant.

Meanwhile, costs associated with the city's waterfront mount. Local officials have known for years that the federal government would require them to pay some of the cost associated with dredging waterways. The levy is an effort to make up for officials' failure to plan ahead to handle that responsibility.

The port is also asking for up to $43 million from taxpayers to shore up a slope above the river that has been failing since the 1950s, another example of the city's dysfunctional planning.

The reformed government needs to establish a competent central planning agency for the city and county. Taking control of the Port Authority would go a long way in this effort.

For years, planning here has been a desperate affair, often devoid of common sense and overlooking the main elements required to make downtown work: money and critical mass. City Hall has controlled the planning process, and despite the stories of downtown revival, the track record over time is poor. Since World War II, millions — if not billions — in private capital, public money and tax abatements have been pumped into downtown, with no central planning to direct the efforts.

In his role as county executive, FitzGerald needs to ask why two of the Cleveland area's biggest corporations, Progressive and Eaton, shunned the opportunity to build new headquarters on the lakefront. He should wonder what happened to the Flats, once a celebrated entertainment area, and why we ended up with a waterfront rail line to nowhere. It would also be fair to ask about the future of shipping on the Great Lakes and why only 120 longshoremen now have jobs at the port, down from more than 400 when the Port Authority was founded 44 years ago.

To ask for an enormous tax increase without altering the status of the Port Authority makes as much sense for voters as giving to Jimmy Dimora's defense fund. City Hall's control of the Port Authority has not worked.

A few years ago, the Port Authority spent almost $1 million on a proposal to relocate the port, which it claimed would bring 50,000 jobs to the area. The proposal received a conditional approval from the city planning commission. Later, the relocation was deemed unworkable and scrapped.

I watched this on a daily basis for a law firm that represented an out of town client with interests in developing lakefront property. The client dropped the idea after seeing that our planning process was sophomoric at best.

Voters put a new county government in place because they wanted the region's problems solved. Yet FitzGerald is content to let the city control the port.

His political ambitions may have played into his decision to support the levy. He obviously has upset the Democratic Party by cutting jobs and millions of dollars from the county payroll. He could cut more by dissolving the Port Authority, but taking on the city would cost him more supporters for any future political ambitions he might have.

For instance, the law firm of Climaco, Wilcox, Peca, Tarantino & Garofoli serves as legal counsel for the Port Authority, and in the last decade billed it nearly $3 million. Most government agencies have their own lawyers that would cost far less.

The Climaco firm is long intertwined in Democratic politics. John Climaco represented former county auditor Frank Russo in 1998 and helped save him from a possible felony theft-in-office charge, allowing him to remain in office and steal millions during the decade afterward.

It took 200 years to reform county government. To step back in time now by voting for the Port Authority levy, and continuing to maintain another tired and failed government entity, is an expensive and useless journey to yesteryear.

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