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The Dredge Report 

The port authority levy is asking for too much, too late

Last week Cuyahoga County residents received glossy postcards in the mail asking approval of a levy that would increase taxes collected by the city-county port authority by some 400 percent. The card failed to mention that suburban tax dollars will be siphoned off to shore up a city government that has failed miserably in vision, achievement, and day-to-day performance.

Not only are county taxpayers being asked for millions; they are unfairly represented on the port board, which is politically stacked by Cleveland City Hall.

The money generated by the levy would be used for dredging the Cuyahoga River, building a pedestrian bridge on the waterfront, and stabilizing a crumbling hillside that threatens to block the river. The implication is that thousands of jobs are at risk if the levy fails.

The need to increase the port's normal operating levy is a result of what has been termed a "crisis" by port officials. The Cuyahoga River is in need of dredging to ensure continued shipping to upstream businesses, mainly the steel company ArcelorMittal.

In the past, the federal government paid for dredging the nation's waterways. But in 1996, Congress deemed that localities should shoulder the cost of keeping them navigable.

The city and the port authority had eight years to confront this expensive challenge. What created the "crisis" was a misguided effort at waterfront development that was distracting in terms of both time and money. While the port was promoting development schemes, it failed at its basic maritime responsibilities.

Largely unfamiliar to the public, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority has had an unremarkable 44-year history. Formed in 1968, it was presented to the public as an early attempt at regionalization. The truth was that the City of Cleveland no longer had the wherewithal to run a port.

At the founding, it was agreed that the city would have six seats on the board, and the county three. Representation was to be amended in 180 days to adjust to changes in population distribution. It never was.

The 2010 census showed 1.2 million people living in Cuyahoga County, of whom 801,719 reside in the suburbs, and 478,403 in the city. What this means is that 60 percent of the population is paying 80 percent of the property taxes, while having only one-third representation on the port board.

Over the years, the media paid little attention to the port authority, portraying it as a benign but beneficial arm of government that dealt with ships and cargo while flirting with dreams that never materialized.

In 2007, port officials announced their biggest dream: moving the port to East 55th St. and creating an economic bastion that would support 25,000 jobs and pump $2 billion into the region's economy.

The magnitude of the bullshit in the proposal was staggering, but incredibly, the port board believed it. And even worse, Mayor Frank Jackson believed it, too. The whole thing went completely over the top when port officials arrogantly announced that the public would have no input into the plan.

What followed was a dogged outburst from grass-roots activists that lasted for two years and led to a meltdown of the port authority, resulting in the resignation of the president and chief operating officer, Adam Wasserman. Although Wasserman quit, the port authority awarded him $300,000, probably for his silence.

The project wasted time and several millions of dollars. Meanwhile, an equally expensive and time-consuming waterfront plan created by former Mayor Jane Campbell was summarily dismissed by her successor, current Mayor Frank Jackson.

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More by Michael D. Roberts

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