$50M demolition fund passes Cuyahoga County Council unanimously (Cleveland Magazine Politics)

Cuyahoga County will soon give cities tens of millions of dollars to tear down blighted buildings. A $50 million bond issue for demolition, debated all year, passed the county council unanimously last night.

The aggressive action addresses one of Cleveland’s most urgent and overwhelming problems. Many city neighborhoods are still scarred by abandoned homes from the recession and foreclosure crisis.

“No one has done anything as ambitious in this nation as $50 million,” said councilman Pernel Jones, a strong supporter of the legislation.

The vote, seven days before Election Day, gave county executive Ed FitzGerald a new accomplishment in the last days of his run for governor. It also affected the race to replace FitzGerald. Jack Schron, the county councilman who’s the Republican candidate for county executive, voted for the demolition plan, even though his attempts to amend it failed.

The council’s Republicans and Democrats ironed out their differences about the demolition program by approving 11th-hour amendments.

The council adopted Republican Dave Greenspan’s idea of letting cities apply for a grant or a loan. The idea is to stretch out the $50 million bond issue, which isn’t nearly enough to demolish the area’s estimated 20,000 abandoned homes. If cities go for a loan, they’ll get a grant of half the loaned money when they pay it back. Cities are expected to apply for grants at first, then loans as the fund dwindles.

Schron’s amendment lost 9-2. He wanted to make the grants competitive and establish an independent review committee to make the awards.

“If we don’t change this, that means the county executive, whoever that’ll be, will be making the determination of how the money will be utilized,” Schron said. But council went instead for Pernel Jones’ amendment, which says council intends to create a committee to oversee the program.

Schron dropped his earlier idea of favoring demolition applications for land with high development interest. The county’s bond counsel advised that restrictions on the use of sales tax bonds prevented it.

Schron’s vote for the final legislation prevents his opponent in the executive race, Democrat Armond Budish, from making demolition a defining issue a week before the election. Budish has said he “strongly supports” the program.

FitzGerald adopted the $50 million demolition proposal in his February State of the County address. (Former county treasurer Jim Rokakis had promoted it for years before.) At the meeting’s end, Democratic councilwoman Sunny Simon praised FitzGerald’s leadership on the issue. Her remarks contrasted with complaints two weeks ago from Greenspan and council president Ellen Connally, who said FitzGerald had offered a vague proposal and left the details to council.

The county will borrow the $50 million and pay it back over several years — despite concerns that county is already borrowing heavily to finance projects such as the convention center hotel.

The county council went forward despite complaints from Cleveland city councilmen Zack Reed and Jeff Johnson that favoring demolition over rehabilitation might hurt the historic character of their neighborhoods. County councilwoman Yvonne Conwell argued two weeks ago that some of the money should go to rehabbing houses, but she also dropped her idea on the advice of the bond counsel.

The Cuyahoga Land Bank will get $9 million to demolish properties it owns. Cities will be able to apply for up to $1 million in the first round of funding and possibly $2 million in later rounds. Every city that shows a need will get an award. Once a city uses 80 percent of the award, it can come back for more.

Under that system, most suburbs will get the money to demolish all their eligible blighted buildings in the first round. The cities with the greatest need — Cleveland and East Cleveland, and perhaps a couple more inner-ring suburbs – will come back for many later rounds.

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