In a topsy-turvy year, there is some comfort to be found in more of the same. Mayor Frank Jackson delivered his 15th annual State of the City address on Thursday evening, and he spent much of his speech on Cleveland’s recent twin crises: the ever-more-insistent local Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. But even in these historic times, Jackson’s tone, style and policy priorities have not changed, and in that constancy one can find small solace, much as you might get from owning a pet rock.
The biggest stylistic departure from last year’s speech was the venue. This year, Jackson, who has not ruled out the possibility of a fifth term, did the responsible thing and took the speech into the great digital yonder as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. He broadcasted from his office at City Hall to Facebook, Twitter and over phone lines for those without Internet access.
Speaking without a lectern and in front of a brilliantly lit hearth (give that lighting designer a raise!), Jackson built upon themes from last year’s speech, in which he called for Cleveland to depart from the institutionalized inequities and disparities he called “the beast.” He also gave an update on how the pandemic has affected the city budget. Here are three big takeaways from the speech:
COVID-19 is Slamming City Finances, But It’s OK For Now
After a brief summary of mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines, Jackson got right to dollars and cents. The pandemic economy has been tough for governments as well as private industry, and Cleveland’s city government is no exception. In April, the city spent $16 million more than it took in, and the total shortfall in the city’s budget so far this year is $35 million. Luckily, Jackson said, the city had a $22 million surplus in the first quarter of this year, and carried over a $43 million cushion from last year in case of an economic downturn. (The 2019 budget, which seemed overly conservative at the time, looks pretty wise now.) Jackson has so far avoided laying off any city employees. Aid is also still flowing out to residents and businesses, including $11.3 million in rental assistance, $4.3 million in food aid, aid to seniors, Internet connectivity support and utilities help, and $10 million worth of business support. Left unaddressed, however, was what the mayor believes the long-term impact of the coronavirus might be on the city’s income tax collections. Income tax makes up about 65% of Cleveland’s general fund revenue.
Police Reform = Consent Decree + ?
Despite recent calls from Black Lives Matter and others for police reforms beyond the consent decree, Jackson is still focused on reform under the agreement. “Incremental police reform simply doesn’t work,” Jackson said, in a section of the speech on “civil unrest.” “Instead there has to be institutional reform. The consent decree helps us and provides us with a blueprint to create a new culture with different behaviors.” The consent decree provides the necessary training and accountability to change the culture of the police department, Jackson said. He did not entertain any additional policy changes that activists have been looking for, like more civilian oversight or swapping out some officers for social workers. In a curious turn for someone who had just moments before rejected incrementalism, Jackson also called for “those who bear the burden” to become police officers and work within the system themselves. “The willingness of those who bear the burden of inequities, disparities and racism to become police officers will go a long way in helping to change the culture and behavior,” Jackson said.
A Fifth Term?
Jackson ended his speech on his usual theme, calling on Clevelanders to make the city great. But that note sounded a little different in 2020, with a Trump-Biden showdown on the horizon, and a mayoral race further in the offing. America’s inequities have diluted and suppressed the Black vote, Jackson said, resulting in less representative leadership and less input on policy. “All of this, ladies and gentlemen, is sowing the seeds of social unrest, that will be more intense, more violent and occur more frequently, creating a recipe for economic, social and political disaster that will be worse than what we are witnessing play out in front of us right now,” Jackson said. Cleveland must implement substantive, institutional change to combat that, he said. “This is the moment that will define us. The Cleveland community has the ability to make institutional changes, and it has the means to eliminate institutionalized inequities, disparities and racism,” Jackson said. “The only question is: Do we have the will, and do we have the courage?"