Thursday, March 5, 2009

State of the City: final thoughts

So how did Frank Jackson's State of the City address go?

First, a note on style: The mayor is not an inspiring speaker and won't ever be. Today, like always, he's got no ringing phrases, just substance.

His first point, about the budget, was the most important and impressive. Despite the economy, despite Cleveland losing population, he's still balancing the budget without layoffs and without reducing services. Though revenue is down 2.4 percent, he said, general fund expenditures are up 3.5 percent. How's he pulling that off? Some of it is a hiring freeze, a 10 percent cut in overtime, a 3 percent cut due to energy efficiency.

He said he started a five-year financial plan when he got into office, looked for spending cuts, and worked ahead. This is a big, underrated accomplishment. Compare that to Mike White, a bully-pulpit mayor who gave great speeches but left a financial mess for Jane Campbell to clean up.

The second biggest point was his call for a regional approach to education. He's talked about this before, but never so clearly. His vision of a county-wide or region-wide levy that would raise money for all local districts could do a lot to bring city schools more funding and reduce the problem of high property taxes nudging people from Cleveland to outer suburbs.

Not so impressive was his reaction to the foreclosure and vacant homes crisis. He talked about how many homes the city has demolished. But the problem is so large that Cleveland needs a better-planned strategy to tear more down faster and decide what should become of the vacant land. The county has its own programs for this, and Jackson needs to team up with them.

On safety, he didn't specifically address the Perk Park shooting (though he did last week). It's not his style to react much to the latest news. He stuck to the big picture: violent crime, he said, is down two years in a row.

No mention of the coming fight about the domestic-partnership registry. He's going to have to address it, if it ends up on the ballot this fall when he's running for re-election.

I think Jackson hasn't left much room for a challenger to take him on. Someone can go at him for his leadership style and say he should have a longer list of accomplishments, especially in economic development. But voters know the economy is beyond a mayor's control. So I think Jackson's message that he prepared the city for hard times will resonate in the fall.

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