Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald made his annual State of the County address on Wednesday.
Below are FitzGerald's remarks as prepared for delivery:
Good afternoon, and thank you for attending my fourth and final State of the County address.
I want to thank the City Club, our esteemed citadel of free speech, for hosting this event again. Thank you to Mayor Jackson, Council President Kelly, all of the suburban mayors and elected officials, and especially our County Council for your attendance here.
My wife Shannon is here; our oldest son, Jack, is away at college today, but our three teenage kids are here to listen to a detailed policy exposition on county government, and they are thrilled. You may not know this, but for teenagers, today's lunch is the hottest ticket in town.
The changes in county government are reflected in how these State of the County speeches have evolved. A few years ago, the President of the Board of County Commissioners would give a State of the County speech before a few scores of people in the City Club auditorium. Now, this speech is given in a brand new convention center before nearly a thousand residents.
But it's the content of the speeches that tell the real story of the path we've been on.
Taking over after the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the county, our priority in year one was to restore public trust, which we accomplished by taking swift and decisive actions. We enacted the toughest ethics rules in the history of the county, including mandatory ethics training for all employees and vendors, we established an office of Inspector General, eliminated patronage positions, required performance evaluations and accountability, hired and promoted based on merit, and managed this whole system based on data-driven best practices.
And it worked. The pursuit of excellence replaced politics, our payroll was reduced significantly, and millions and millions of taxpayer dollars were saved.
The fiscal record we have established speaks to this: I signed into law an ordinance requiring that we maintain 25% of our general fund operating budget in reserve, which is a very high bar in government finance standards. But a few weeks ago, we closed the fiscal books on 2013, with a total of $184 million in reserves- over 50% of our annual general fund operating expenditures. We're saving over $50 million in operating expenses by consolidating our properties and constructing the first new county administration building in 50 years, and we are revitalizing East 9th Street and Euclid at the same time.
Now, all those numbers may seem dry and boring to some, but if you don't have fiscal strength, if you don't streamline your operations, if you don't restore the public's trust that your system is honest and open, then you won't have either the resources or the public support to accomplish great things.
Having met our first set of challenges, in our second year we sought to define a long-term policy framework, and we did that by creating the Western Reserve Plan, an outline of 12 policy principles.
That speech provided a detailed public policy roadmap, and that kind of speech should only be given once in an administration. Subsequent speeches should chart our progress along that road, which is what I did last year, and will do so again this year.
If you think about it, speeches that just set out aspirations are really pretty easy to give. Greater Cleveland has had its share of speeches and plans, and talk is cheap; what inspires confidence is just results.
The people of this county aren't asking for county government to do everything, they just want to know that we are making steady progress along the plan we have defined. That's what generates confidence. And that is what I can report today.
I won't go through all twelve elements of the Western Reserve Plan, but let me summarize it this way: as I've said before, in many ways county government in the last few years has been a battleground between those who have given up on Cleveland and those who will never give up on Cleveland; between those who think that great things are in our past, and those who think that our greatest days are in the future.
I chose to give today's speech here for a reason. This facility is one of those physical examples of the progress we've made. One of our first tasks in office was to oversee the construction of our new Convention Center and Global Center for Health Innovation.
And the results are all around you. This facility was constructed months ahead of schedule and millions of dollars under budget, as was the attached Global Center. In the last 6 months, this facility hosted more than 100 events and 150,000 visitors. The Global Center for Health Innovation is the only facility in the world that displays the future of health and healthcare innovation, technology, education and commerce through four floors of state of the art spaces, programs and virtual offerings.
Developing downtown, one of the principles of our Western Reserve Plan, is not just good for Cleveland, it's good for the whole region. The list of downtown projects is unlike anything that any of us have seen happen here in a generation- from this facility, to our new County Administration Building, to the East Bank of the Flats, to the redesign of Public square, the proposed lakefront development, the renovation and rebirth of the Ameritrust Complex, and the improvements at Playhouse Square.
But perhaps the greatest example of renewed confidence is the new convention center hotel which will be built a few yards from here- the largest hotel ever in Cleveland, built and maintained by workers who earn a living wage, constructed literally on the remains of a county administration building that was a symbol of the old way of doing things…timid communities, communities that lack confidence and drive and determination do not do these kinds of projects.
But we do; or, I should say, we are doing that again. Back in 1936, in the depths of the depression, this city had the guts to show Cleveland to the world through the Great Lakes Exposition, and in the next few weeks, I will be releasing details about how we will do that again in 2016.
Because taken together, all of these projects have created a downtown that we should be incredibly proud of, and we should show it on a national stage.
And now I would like to share with you a video that explains our downtown renaissance in greater detail.
Our efforts in support of development have not been limited to the downtown area. While the state was cutting back on help for local governments, we've been looking for ways to help local communities with their development needs.
Just two weeks ago, we finalized a new program which will allow up to 80 million dollars of county funds to be invested in local infrastructure projects. The collapse of the real estate market hurt local cities and school districts' ability to afford necessary capital improvements, and this program takes a portion of our investment portfolio, and reinvests it in our own communities, and twelve suburban communities have already applied for these funds.
Two years ago, we marked housing as one of our 12 policy priorities. Although progress has been made working with our Land Bank, using state and federal funds, and with our local cities and villages, our economic recovery is still hobbled by thousands of properties which, unfortunately, are beyond salvaging through renovation.
These properties drag down the values of healthy properties, and act as magnets for crime. Federal, state and local funds have helped, but we need to take more dramatic action this year. Last week, I directed my staff to find an additional $50 million in bonding capacity to fund the most sweeping effort to not just demolish, but to demolish, protect, and restore our neighborhoods.
And the commitment made in our first year to create an economic development fund larger and more active than any other county in Ohio has been kept. Our $100 million Western Reserve Fund has been providing help to local businesses who are trying to expand their payrolls.
Again, there were skeptics. But it is working. In the last three years we have worked with local companies to create thousands of jobs, and leveraged over $80 million in private investment. And we approve those loans in a transparent process, because we believe that if the public's money is involved, then the public has a right to know.
The businesses we've partnered with have been located all over the county, and here's a video that shows a couple projects we've helped with:
Our efforts have borne some fruit. Job growth in county is outpacing the state and the nation. But we also have been mindful that the economic inequality which seems to be growing every year is not just remedied by economic growth, we must have economic justice as well.
The national dialogue about inequality is long overdue. It isn't rhetorical, it's real. Just in this county, for instance, we have communities where the average life expectancy is 65 years of age, and others where it is 85 years of age- communities just a few miles from each other, but worlds apart in terms of even the most basic measurement of life expectancy.
That's why we have kept our commitment to economic inclusion in our major projects, and we've begun a dialogue with community groups to do even more. It's why we're conducting the first economic disparity study in the history of the county.
Because although our county's unemployment rate is down, I know, and most of you know, that wages in this economy do not have the buying power they used to. Too many families are living paycheck to paycheck, and many workers are working two or three minimum wage jobs and still can't provide for their children.
The sad fact of the matter is that you can have economic growth without real economic progress. But the good news is that you can have economic growth and economic justice at the same time, and in fact you will make more economic progress if you pay all workers, regardless of race or gender, a decent, living wage, and that's why we insist on it in our development projects.
We also understand that economic progress requires cooperation. That's why the promotion of regionalism was one of our 12 policy priorities. We know that we are connected to each other economically, whether we like it or not. We are not going to succeed at the expense of one another. This community took a huge step forward when every single city, village and township signed our Business Attraction and Anti-Poaching Protocol.
The county will always stand ready to assist communities when they consider merging with one another. But let's be clear about something: the larger community of Greater Cleveland is not going to just wake up one morning and decide to become one large mega-city.
Regionalism in the near term is only likely to be expressed through shared services, agreed to by individual communities exercising the home rule powers they have been guaranteed in the Ohio Constitution for over a century. Sharing services can provide a foundation for saving money and providing superior services. And, if it continues to progress, there will be the outline of a true metropolitan government, because we will have provided a basis for trust and inter-dependence.
And along these lines, we have made great progress. We recently completed an agreement with Mayor Bill Cervenik in Euclid to take over operations of their jail, giving us additional capacity while saving Euclid half a million dollars a year.
And in an even larger undertaking, Mayor Frank Jackson and I recently concluded a similar agreement whereby the county would assume the operations of the Cleveland jail. Now, that is a conversation which was bouncing back and forth between the city and the county literally for over 30 years. But Mayor Jackson and I got it done, and authorizing legislation is being submitted to Cleveland City Council and County Council, and if adopted there will be a savings to the city of approximately $5 million a year.
But that's not all we're doing in this area. The county is now providing a whole array of services for local communities- just as we promised would - including health insurance, IT services, bridge inspections, HR administration, health and wellness programs, municipal planning, cooperative purchasing, public record preservation, sewer and road maintenance, and many more.
Each year, methodically, we have done more. Each year, we have provided better services for local communities, and saved them money at the same time. And each year we have created a more metropolitan, regional government, not by taking away their independence, but by a division of labor where each community can focus on what they do best, and leave other services to the county. It's not as exciting as a merger in one fell swoop, but it has the distinct advantage of being real.
But all of this progress is for naught if we can't enjoy it in a safe community, another of our guiding policy principles. As many of you know, I spent eight years of my life in law enforcement. For years, I have believed that the county could play a greater role in coordinating and assisting local law enforcement. I promised in my campaign for this office that the county would take more of a leadership role, and today, the county is helping in ways it never did before.
There were lessons of September 11th that were clear for all to see, but we weren't adjusting to them. In 2003, as some of you may recall, we had a major power outage and blackout, and the county had to scramble because of an inadequate Emergency Operations Center, antiquated equipment, and radio systems that couldn't talk to each other. For more than a decade, these problems persisted; lots of talk about fixing it, and very little action.
In response, we wrote the county's first Master Plan for Public Safety, and we've been steadily implementing it ever since. We've worked with local communities to upgrade and consolidate 911 centers, put millions of dollars into new radios for police officers and firefighters, we redesigned and professionalized our emergency response services, and this year, we will break ground on a brand new, state of the art Emergency Operations Center in partnership with the City of Broadview Heights, represented by Mayor Sam Alai, who is here today.
We're also trying to empower residents to keep up to date about emergency situations as they unfold. Starting next month, we are launching something called the "ReadyNotify System." Residents of the county who want to receive text messages or emails about developing emergency situations can just go to readynotify.cuyahogacounty.us <http://readynotify.cuyahoga.us> and our Emergency Management Agency staff will send you updates as events unfold.
We also kept our promise to establish a community policing unit in our Sheriff's Department, which has dramatically reduced the number of outstanding felony warrants, cracked down on sex offenders, and made over 1,000 arrests.
Sheriff Bova, who is with us here today, has led our efforts with integrity and dedication, and it has only been possible with a real partnership with local law enforcement, as this video demonstrates.
Law enforcement is a team sport. And we've worked to establish strong partnerships across the board. The initiative we began regarding heroin use some months ago is a perfect example of that.
Heroin is the most addictive and deadly substance on our streets, and we must rally all of our resources before it claims more lives. We've worked collaboratively with local hospitals, U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach and his staff, the Board of Health, local police departments, our medical examiner's office- all of us recognize just how dire the issue of heroin usage is today.
The heroin problem is much different than what I saw as a prosecutor more than a decade ago. We lost nearly two hundred people last year to heroin overdoses. Part of the county's initiative provided an antidote to heroin overdoses which is estimated to have saved two dozen lives, but that is no comfort to the almost 200 families who lost a wife, or a daughter, or a son...
Don't assume you know who it's been affecting, because your assumptions about who is a heroin user are probably wrong. Heroin is affecting every community and every demographic. Last year it killed more people than firearms in this county.
I really think that those who experiment with heroin and become addicted to it really don't realize what they're getting into. But one thing that Prosecutor McGinty, Sheriff Bova, and I all agree on is that those drug dealers who sell heroin know exactly what they're doing, and they should face serious prison time because they know they're killing people.
But we can't just incarcerate our way out of it, we need a broad-based approach from all parts of our community; it's not a political issue, it's a public health emergency and we must treat it as such. And I would ask all of you and the assembled media here to help us get the word out at every opportunity.
We don't just try to keep our residents safe, we also respond to human needs and the human condition.
Human services programs have been a major part of our mission and budget for many years. And we have kept those commitments. But we have sought to take the same spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship that we applied to our initiatives in public administration and economic development to human services. It's essential that we don't just measure how much we spend on social programs, but whether they are actually improving lives.
That's why we have become one of the only communities in the United States to have embraced a "pay for success" strategy. Simply put, the "pay for success" model targets an early investment in a particularly effective social program, with the result being a net savings to government as a result of the positive effect of the intervention.
It's called Social Impact Bond financing, and we're using it to help stabilize families who are facing homelessness so that we can prevent children from being separated from their parents. Working with non-profits like the Gund Foundation, we believe its possible to improve lives and save public dollars at the same time.
This strategy is consistent with our whole focus on early intervention. It's why I recently convened more than two dozen non-profit and public agencies to coordinate our efforts on behalf of children. It's why in our last budget we again increased funding for our Invest in Children program, and we will continue to look for ways to expand Universal Pre-Kindergarten. There should be more resources available from the federal government and the state for early childhood education, but we can't just wait for them to come to that realization, so we continue to look for local resources to meet this need.
As part of that, this year we became the first county in the United States to create a universal College Savings Account program, which establishes a savings account for every single child starting kindergarten in Cuyahoga County, which they can use when they graduate from high school for either vocational training or a college education. Its part of creating a culture that recognizes that a high school education isn't enough anymore, our children have the potential to do so much more, as this video explains.
As inspiring as I think that program is, and all of the other initiatives that I mentioned today, the accomplishment that I am most proud of, and the one that I believe will have the greatest long-term benefit to this community, is the driving motivation of this government to keep striving for excellence in all of our fields of endeavor. When the memory of the scandals of the past have faded away, that must remain.
And it has resulted in so many achievements in these past few years, too many to mention in one speech.
Accomplishments like the establishment of a Consumer Affairs Department, which is already protect the rights of consumers this county and will continue to do so with a new program to check fuel quality.
A hotline number to report senior abuse or seek assistance for seniors;
A veteran's ID card to streamline services for our military veterans;
Construction of a new regional crime lab;
Developing standardized policies for the victims of sexual assault;
A County Health Alliance that has 22 of our communities working together on health and wellness issues;
Convening public and private partners to work together to maintain, monitor and improve the health of Lake Erie;
Working with the Cleveland Foundation and others in support of building a clean and alternative energy industry here, including wind power and geothermal;
Eliminating a bureaucratic backlog of thousands of cases at the Board of Revision;
Identifying millions of dollars in unclaimed funds so that they can be returned to the taxpayers;
Investing over $60 million in local infrastructure, while helping local communities by saving them another $10 million in infrastructure costs;
Providing funds to clean up more than 100 acres of contaminated property, so that it can be redeveloped for the people again;
Taking a coroner's office which was unaccredited and transforming it into a medical examiner's office which is now the most accredited public forensic institution in the nation;
Working on a youth engagement process in partnership with Ideastream and WVIZ;
Establishing a Missing Persons Initiative and comprehensive, county-wide website;
Going to federal court to protect the voter rights of our residents;
Overhauling the entire IT structure of the county;
Saving millions by becoming a more paperless operation, including e-filing of court cases;
Expanding our re-entry programs to give formerly incarcerated individuals a chance to become productive members of our community again;
Helping to place returning veterans into renovated homes- honoring our veterans and improving our neighborhoods simultaneously;
And the list goes on and on...
None of these things would be possible without a day-in, day-out dedication to continuous reform and improvement; our team- and they have been an honor to work with- gets up every day and tries to make this whole enterprise work for the hardworking families of this county.
Government at its worst is run by a small group of people, for the benefit of a small group of people. This government has been run for you; I began with a belief that something better was possible for this county, and we will keep working towards that with every day we have left.
My hope for Cuyahoga County in the years to come is that the argument between optimists and pessimists will end, because in my opinion, the argument has already been won. The next debate should be between those who have competing visions of greatness. Not whether we succeed, but how we expand our economy, promote early education, keep our communities safe, and create a more just society.