EAST CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — Leaders of one of Ohio's poorest cities have dropped their opposition to being annexed by neighboring Cleveland, a shift East Cleveland residents hope could provide basic services the city hasn't been able to afford for years.
Mayor Gary Norton has been pushing for a merger with Cleveland for several years but was stymied by a City Council that believed the city could survive on its own. But City Council President Thomas Wheeler said this week in an interview with The Associated Press that a merger with Cleveland appears unavoidable.
"I've got pride," said Wheeler, 52, a lifelong East Cleveland resident. "I don't want to merge. But we're fighting to save an East Cleveland that no longer exists."
East Cleveland was once a middle-class community of around 40,000 people. Oil baron John D. Rockefeller's expansive estate was in East Cleveland. A millionaires' row of mansions once lined Euclid Avenue, the main thoroughfare. The city is only 3.2 square miles, and about half of that is a park.
Today, the population is around 17,000, nearly half what it was in 1990. The median household income is around $20,000, compared with $48,000 for the state.
The city is crumbling. About 1,000 homes have been demolished in recent years with the help of the Cuyahoga County land bank, but there are at least 1,000 more that need to be razed, along with more than 140 apartment buildings.
The East Cleveland government is barely open for business. It owes $3.5 million in past-due bills and hasn't been able to borrow money for capital improvement projects or anything else for years. The city workforce has been cut in half since 2010, but it's still a struggle to make payroll every two weeks.
East Cleveland's dilemma is not complicated. The city can't collect enough money to support itself, and financial projections show the problem getting worse.
"It's a disastrous situation," said Mayor Norton.
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost said in an interview on Wednesday that a merger with Cleveland is East Cleveland's best hope. Yost placed East Cleveland back into fiscal emergency in 2012, which means a state-appointed commission reviews the city's finances and oversees a fiscal recovery plant. It previously spent 17 years in a fiscal emergency that ended in 2006.
"The bottom line is the bottom has fallen out of their revenue bucket," Yost said. "And I don't see a way to repair that bucket."
Yost has asked the Ohio Legislature for $10 million to pay for capital improvements like road repairs if East Cleveland and Cleveland agree to merge.
Wheeler said the council is waiting for a consultant to report on any alternatives to a merger.
If officials from both cities move ahead, a merger could take months to complete. City councils from both cities must appoint three people to a commission that will iron out the details about a merger. The East Cleveland City Council was meeting Thursday evening for an executive session to discuss whom to appoint to the commission.
East Cleveland voters will ultimately decide whether to become part of Cleveland. The Cleveland City Council would then vote to accept East Cleveland or let its voters decide the issue.
A spokesman for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson declined to comment about the possibility of a merger. Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley did not respond to an interview request. He has previously said he's willing to form the commission and explore whether a merger makes sense.
East Cleveland resident Pia Hoffman would like to become part of Cleveland. One of the last working street lamps on her street recently fell to the ground, she said. When she called City Hall, she was told the city didn't have money to fix it.
"What do we do?" Hoffman asked. "It's not safe."
Norton has also been exploring filing a municipal bankruptcy. Yost and others say they're not aware of that ever occurring in Ohio. Norton said it would give East Cleveland some breathing room if a bankruptcy judge allowed the city to work out deals with creditors to pay less than what is owed.
Yost, the state auditor, isn't so sure if bankruptcy is a viable option.
"Even if the payoff (to vendors) was a nickel on the dollar, I don't know where they'd get the nickel," Yost said.