Issue: September/October 2012
Port Authority Bailout: An Insult
County taxpayers should question the agency’s effectiveness.
The Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority is asking citizens to approve a levy this fall that will raise $90 million and increase their taxes to the port by
400 percent. This borders on the incredible and the naïve.
Incredible that the port would ask for so much, and naive that officials think the citizens of the county will bail out a city hall that for decades has presided over a decline in jobs, population, and education, while resisting government reform.
In addition, the port has put itself in position to be criticized for unfair public representation by a disenchanted citizenry that, in the last decade, has learned not to trust government at any level. They should wonder why we even need a Port Authority.
Port officials will offer statistics to justify the levy, but all one needs is to look at the lakefront to determine the effectiveness of this organization over the last 44 years.
The port likes to claim that the maritime-dependent segment of the local economy represents 18,000 jobs. Maybe. But I wouldn’t put much faith in the inevitable lawn signs that claim job creation in return for your vote.
For example, since the Port Authority was established in 1968, the number of longshoremen has gone from 436 to fewer than 100, the result of dwindling shipping on the Great Lakes and the fact that the city has lost 275,500 people and countless jobs in that time.
A few years ago, the port announced a plan to move its maritime facilities to East 55th Street and create 50,000 jobs. While it was obvious that there was no money for such a project and that the promise of jobs was exaggerated, the board wasted millions on the plan before it was scrapped. A similar plan under Mayor Jane Campbell, again costing millions, was set aside by the Jackson administration.
One of the projects that the levy proposes to fund is the stabilization of Irishtown Bend, a slope along the Cuyahoga River that has been deteriorating since the 1950s. The slope is threatening the waterway, and is the responsibility of the city. The Port Authority agreed to act for the city on this problem by attempting to raise $43 million from county residents.
The levy would also pay for the dredging of the Cuyahoga River and the building of a pedestrian bridge that would give more public access to the lakefront. In the past, the federal government dredged the waterway, but in recent years has given the responsibility to local government.
The businesses along the river, including the ArcelorMittal steel mill, rely on the Cuyahoga to remain open to navigation.
These days, Frank Jackson’s City Hall is a troubled house. The water department is in disarray, likewise the fire department. The plan to turn trash to energy crashed, a new lighting plan was a failure, and the only idea for a broken school system is to levy more taxes.
Worse, during the effort to reform a corrupt and corpulent county government, Jackson chose to oppose the measure, thereby politically isolating the city from the reach of regional government. It was a mistake. Now, in essence, the Port Authority levy is an effort to get the suburbs to pay for improvements.
In truth, the Port Authority is an appendage of a bygone political era. It should be made part of the new county government.
With that in mind, it is odd that County Executive Ed FitzGerald would support the levy. Thus far, FitzGerald has had somewhat of a charmed existence. As the mayor of Lakewood, he opposed the charter that reformed county government, and then seized on the opportunity to lead it.
FitzGerald has performed the housekeeping side of his job admirably, saving millions and reorganizing a 200-year-old government into one approaching some modern efficiency, even though county workers resent the big brother oversight that came with the change.
Now FitzGerald faces another test. How effective will his leadership be in creating a future for a region battered by the economy and bad government? Part of that economic development is the role of the Port Authority or lack thereof.
In 1968, the city and county joined together to create the Port Authority, which was one of the first real efforts here to recognize regional needs. At the time, Cleveland’s population was 750,000. The remaining county residents totaled 970,000.
In the original agreement, Cleveland City Hall appointed six port board members. The county commissioners named three. The structure of the board was to be amended 180 days after the first levy was passed in 1968 to reflect a more representative board. It never was.
As of the 2010 census, there were 478,403 people in the city and another 801,719 living in the county. More than 60 percent of the county’s population lives in the suburbs and yet has only one-third of the votes on the board.
FitzGerald needed to weigh the future of the Port Authority before he endorsed the tax. There are many who look at the new county government and ask why the Port Authority is not under its development umbrella.
Political observers are curious and uneasy about FitzGerald’s actions, which ignore the opportunity to reform an important economic development tool. The levy is on the ballot
because the city government no longer can afford to run the municipality.
The city essentially abandoned the operation of the port to the county when the Port Authority was created in 1968. To fund the organization as it is constituted is a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Voters should heed Port Authority board member Richard Knoth, who cast the only dissenting vote against the tax. He did so citing his concern that the public was not going to get enough value for its money. The greater question is whether the public ever got its value out of the Port Authority.
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