July 24, 2014

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CHASING CHASE: Lorain mayor reflects on first year in office

“The greedy thieves who came around and ate the flesh of everything they found. Whose crimes have gone unpunished now. Who walk the streets as free men now. They brought death to our hometown, boys, death to our hometown.”
— Bruce Springsteen, “Death to my Hometown”

LORAIN — The autographed Bruce Springsteen guitar sits in Mayor Chase Ritenauer’s office, reminding him of his musical hero and of “Death to My Hometown,” Springsteen’s condemnation of Wall Street bankers for the foreclosure crisis that has devastated cities, including Lorain.

“It talks about how death was not brought by war,” Ritenauer said in a recent interview about his first year in office. “It was brought by these bad deals that have left neighborhoods ravaged.”

The song is from Springsteen’s most recent album, “Wrecking Ball,” a device Ritenauer wants to take to the blighted, foreclosed properties that dot his city. One of every 336 houses in Lorain was in foreclosure in November, according to the real estate website Realty Trac.

That rate far exceeded the Ohio rate of one of 458 and the national rate of one of 728. About 50 homes were demolished in the city this year, and Ritenauer said the biggest disappointment of his first year was that more weren’t razed.

“People have said, ‘Mayor, we’re so happy when we drive down the street and that vacant house we’ve looked at is gone.’ Certainly, I want it to be faster,” he said. “It just takes so long and so many financial resources to eradicate the problem.”

Progress can’t come fast enough for Ritenauer, a reformer in a hurry with a deep agenda and steep challenges. Despite slow progress dealing with foreclosures and the effects of decades of deindustrialization on the city’s economy, Ritenauer counts his first year as mainly successful.

Ritenauer said there has been substantial progress and counts passage of Issue 13 as his biggest achievement. The 0.5 percentage point city income tax increase raises an additional $5.3 million annually, costing a worker earning $50,000 annually an additional $250 per year.

With some voters resenting city workers for their union benefits and protections, Ritenauer shrewdly campaigned on the road and park improvements that the tax would fund rather than the approximately 25 layoffs it would prevent by eliminating an approximately $2 million projected deficit. Besides saving jobs, the money will be used to hire several workers to better maintain Lorain’s 56 parks.

About $1.6 million will be spent on annual borrowing costs on a $20 million, 20-year bond for road improvements. Another $1 million will be spent for annual road maintenance.
Lorain’s workforce has shrunk from about 600 when the state placed it on fiscal watch in 2002 to the current 450. The Parks Department was eliminated in 2009. A handful of Streets Department workers are responsible for filling all of the Lorain’s many potholes during the spring.

Recruiting some Republicans for the levy committee, the group spent about $55,000 promoting the tax to voters as an investment in themselves.

Ritenauer called its passage, along with approval of the Lorain  Schools’ levy, the first new levy approved for the school district since 1992, a “pivotal moment” for Lorain.

“I don’t know a moment where I’ve been prouder of the community I live in,” he said. “There’s a feeling that we’re moving forward. That progress is being made.”

‘He was born 40’

Ritenauer has his work cut out for him. Springsteen’s 1985 song “My Hometown,” in which a factory foreman tells laid-off workers, “These jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back” aptly describes the deindustrialization of Rust Belt cities like Lorain. The city once had a thriving car, steel and shipping industry but is now a shell of what it once was economically.

Nonetheless, Ritenauer says he’s optimistic about Lorain’s future. The steel industry is an economic rollercoaster, but because of the American auto industry’s comeback and increase in exploration for domestic oil and natural gas, Republic Steel has promised to hire 450 workers this year as part of its $87 million expansion. The deal, which Ritenauer said former Mayor Tony Krasienko left for his administration to negotiate, includes $5.9 million in local tax breaks, which work out to about $13,000 per job.

Ritenauer, like many mayors before him, also is hoping to create jobs by capitalizing on Lorain’s waterfront. With FirstEnergy Corp. decommissioning its Edgewater Substation at 200 Oberlin Ave., Lorain hopes to borrow up to $7 million to purchase the land located beside Lake Erie. The city sold the land for the new Black River Substation to FirstEnergy for $10.

Ritenauer hopes by removing unsightly power lines, developers will be attracted to the waterfront. He said businesses have been reluctant to come to Lorain due to blight and bad roads. Ritenauer hopes the tax hike will solve the road problem and demolitions and the recently established Nuisance Inspection Task Force will reduce blight.

‘The subtlest of arts’

It is an ambitious agenda for the 28-year-old Ritenauer, who has been involved in politics for much of his young life. Ritenauer, grandson of former four-term Lorain County Commissioner Fred Ritenauer and the youngest person in Ohio ever sworn in as a Democratic State Central Committee member in 2006, passed out campaign literature for his uncle, Councilman Dan Given, D-at large, as a 9-year-old.

“He was born 40,” said Anita Gregus, Ritenauer’s mother. “He was always very focused.”

Before Ritenauer wanted to be mayor, he wanted to be a garbage collector. Gregus recalls him following garbage men on their routes on his bicycle and providing water for them.

Years later, as an assistant safety/service director for Krasienko, Ritenauer got to ride along with garbage men as part of research on automated collection.

“That was his lifelong dream,” said Gregus, who recalled her son dressing like a garbage truck for Halloween one year.

Ritenauer’s experience may have been helpful when he took office, because he said Krasienko left him a mess. In his February State of the City address, Ritenauer said Krasienko had “misrepresented” finances and left City Hall with a “culture of secrecy and combativeness.”

While Krasienko’s relations with City Council members sometimes were tense, Ritenauer got good reviews at the last Council meeting of the year Dec. 17.

“We’ve had a good year this year compared to what we have been through,” said Councilman Eddie Edwards, D-5th Ward.  “We’re not out of the woods, (but) we’re making great strides.”

Ritenauer said he agrees with the description of former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who called government “the subtlest of arts.” Ritenauer admires politicians who can accomplish their goals and compromise with opponents without completely compromising their principles.

“The notion that a mayor or even a president can do things unilaterally and get them done that way, that’s just not an accurate depiction, which is why government being an art form is absolutely true,” he said. “It’s the art of trying to get people together. Finding those ties that bind.”

Ups and downs

Despite the good reviews, Ritenauer and his administration have had stumbles. In June, Ritenauer ended a policy by Safety/Service Director Robert Fowler of sending nurses to the homes of city workers who called in sick. Ritenauer acknowledged that the policy played into the stereotype of lazy workers freeloading on taxpayers.

“He took to it to a level I wasn’t comfortable with.” Ritenauer told The Chronicle-Telegram in June.

Also in June, Ritenauer mended fences after a turf battle with Lorain Schools officials. On the advice of Board of Education attorney and Lorain County Democratic Party Chairman Anthony Giardini, Ritenauer suggested an 11th-hour delay in construction of the $73 million new Lorain High School and relocating the site from Ashland Avenue to between Leavitt and Meister roads.

He also entertained the possibility of Giardini replacing then-interim Superintendent Ed Branham if Branham wasn’t willing to make more administrative cuts.

After the fallout damaged the improved relations he had established with the school board, Ritenauer backed off on the school plan. He also apologized to Branham.

Ritenauer, a Democrat, also has clashed with Republican County Commissioner Tom Williams over the bailout of the aging, financially hemorrhaging St. Joseph Community Center.

Ritenauer was also overheard by a Chronicle-Telegram reporter discussing sewer and water rate increases for roughly 1,000 residents in Amherst, Elyria and Sheffield townships in executive session, an apparent violation of Ohio open meeting laws. The increases angered Williams and some Amherst residents.

Ritenauer campaigned for President Obama and denounced Republican rival Mitt Romney when Romney appeared in Lorain County. David Arredondo, Lorain County Republican vice chairman, said it was a mistake.

“That kind of stuff can backfire on you when, in fact, the candidate you oppose wins,” Arredondo said.

However, Arredondo credited Ritenauer with enlisting former Mayor Craig Foltin, a Republican, to support the tax hike. Arredondo said this year will be a truer test of Ritenauer with Gov. Kasich’s administration likely to provide less state taxpayer money to cities and little money expected from federal taxpayers.

Ritenauer said he’s aware he can’t count on much help from the state or feds. He tries to balance dealing with the big picture and the day-to-day challenges of being mayor. On a recent morning, with a Diet Pepsi — Ritenauer’s drink of choice — and oatmeal by his side, the issues flew by at his daily staff meeting.

Proposed demolitions to go before the county land bank.  A proposed nuisance building ordinance. Finding money for St. Joe’s. Upcoming budget hearings and more traffic lights on Broadway.

Typical days are long; filled with meetings and ceremonial appearances. Ritenauer said he often answers emails on his phone late at night and is up early in the morning.

Ritenauer does squeeze in some personal time. He has been dating a woman in Lorain County for eight months and makes sure to occasionally visit Wrigley Field to cheer on his beloved Chicago Cubs. He reads mostly nonfiction, focusing on economics, leadership and politics.

Ritenauer also regularly works out. He often does Insanity, a grueling cardio workout involving interval training with short breaks. Ritenauer said he likes it because the workout is designed to accomplish in two months what is accomplished in six months of standard workouts.

Following along on a DVD during a recent workout, Ritenauer jogged in place, moved crab-like right to left, simulated jump shots and did squats and pushups. Ritenauer’s heart was beating at 188 beats per minute when done, but he barely worked up a sweat.

There is still much to be done.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.