Trapped in the Status Quo

Cleveland's leaders ask an impoverished city to raise its school taxes, but they're ignoring our greatest need: reforming county government to attract prosperity.

No matter how you measure it, our quality of life in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County is affected by government at all levels. That's why this fall promises more than just festivals, football and fallout over Iraq.

Listen to what politicians and business leaders say about the future — and what they don't — when they ask Clevelanders to approve a levy for the city schools this fall, as well as a wage-tax increase to boost safety forces in the wake of last January's layoffs.

While both are important issues, what you won't hear is that Cleveland may not be able to afford them.

A recent study showed that Ohioans already pay 11.3 percent of our income in local, county and state taxes; that's the third-highest percentage of any state in the nation. This indicates that we aren't getting value for our money from state and local governments. The more radical would argue that the situation is the public-sector equivalent of Enron.

In the last three years, Cuyahoga County has lost 30,000 residents. The county has hemorrhaged jobs, taxes, prestige and businesses steadily for more than 30 years.

There are many reasons for our plight. Some are global and affect every old American manufacturing city. It may be that Cleveland never had a business plan and simply profited from two world wars, then lived on old jobs until foreign foes recovered their economic strength. Now, even Third World countries are stripping us of jobs that will never come back.

Other problems are a county fragmented by some 128 governmental entities, and the fact that we don't really talk to one another because of those differences.

Yet, as Republicans and the Citizens League try to get a county-government reform plan on the ballot, public officials continue to assure us that county government is fine. Any effort to change it, they contend, is really a plot by one or another of the evil trolls lurking beneath the bridges that span our once-combustible river.

But government needs to adapt to a new century full of new challenges. It has to do more than pick up the garbage. It must figure out to how to help create prosperity.

The issue of how the county is governed may or may not be on the ballot this fall. It's enduring the same uncertain debate it's faced since county reform was first proposed in 1934. Regardless, the issue will come back, probably swifter than it ever has before.

That's why this fall is significant. Cleveland's two November ballot proposals, the tax increases for the school system and for police and fire, will be difficult to pass.

The city's tax base is failing, its population is poor and jobs are dwindling. So it's not hard to see that even if these issues pass, it won't be long before voters will be asked for more money, especially for the schools. Eventually, there will not be enough money in the city to adequately fund its schools. There may not even be enough money for the city to reasonably maintain itself.

That is why we must change the way we are governed.

Many business and political leaders oppose the county-reform ballot issue, saying that it will further confuse the already tense and difficult school and safety issues. They say that this is not the time for such a change, which is the same thing that's been said for nearly 100 years.

Some leaders in Cleveland's minority community — really a majority of the city's vote — object to the government reform because they fear it will disenfranchise them after years of struggle to gain representation. Instead, black leaders should play a leading role in government reform, negotiating from strength and protecting their constituencies. The longer they wait, the more the city declines, the faster political cynicism accelerates and the more pain the education system suffers.

With the decline of economic power in Cleveland, the suburbs are moving into a new political era, their power fueled by residents and businesses that have the vibrancy and wealth the city has lost.

In addition, economic studies suggest that the state and local tax system unfairly penalizes businesses, creating a hostile environment in the city for new business acquisition and expansion.

This means that suburbanites need to understand that, at some point, they will be asked to support Cleveland's school system. Many see it as inevitable. The only question is how this issue will play out.

Will state or federal law force it upon the more than 50 communities that make up the county? Or will county government change, take charge and give its citizens the opportunity to direct their own destiny?

In Cuyahoga County, government reform may come too late. Those who run for public office stand for the status quo, campaigning long and hard against progress.

But the need for change in government structure will not disappear because leadership ignores it. We must marshal resources, develop an overall economic effort and convene a forum where we might communicate with one another.

Smart leaders in both the county and the city ought to put government reform above anything else on their agenda. Without it, nothing significant is going to happen. And a new government framework will be needed to convince suburbanites that it's in their own interest to help the city.

There is no guarantee that a change in governance will solve all of our problems or create a miracle, but we have lived with the alternative long enough to know it is not working anymore.

The inability to talk and negotiate and achieve is strangling this community. Should we wait until hundreds of thousands more flee the county, along with jobs and taxes, until we finally get the wake-up call?

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