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Published: Sunday, 1/17/2010

New mayor exudes hope, offers plan for recovery

MAYOR Mike Bell has an urgent message for Toledoans: "We're going to be OK."

The assurance might seem an exercise in whistling past the cemetery, given that the mayor - on the job for all of two weeks - must figure out almost immediately how to erase a deficit of as much as $44 million in a projected general fund budget of about $236 million. That suggests the labors of Hercules, if not Sisyphus (the guy who was condemned to keep pushing the boulder up the mountain, only to watch it roll back down).

But sit down and talk with the mayor, as I did last week in his office atop One Government Center, and you sense that he really believes he can "turn this thing around fairly quickly." And you're inclined to believe it, too. As Mr. Bell observes, there isn't a better alternative.

"A private company can save money by not providing services," he says. "But we can't stop providing police and fire protection. We can't stop collecting the trash or plowing the streets. So we have to look at different ideas and concepts."

The mayor says he is pushing hard to get a plan to address the deficit in place by the end of March. He outlines a three-part process.

Step One: Find efficiencies in the budget. Easier said than done, of course. But Mayor Bell says he plans to meet with Lucas County officials to look at ways to eliminate money-wasting duplication in the provision of local services. He also is examining whether the city can save money by selling assets.

Step Two: Ask city employee unions to reopen their contracts and agree to temporary concessions. The mayor acknowledges that union officials will fight that suggestion. He knows he needs to give them honest and credible budget numbers if he's to have any chance of persuading them, and he's determined to do that.

"Nobody ever believed the figures were correct," he says of perceptions of the city's position in previous contract negotiations. "What we're telling them has to be real."

Step Three: Even after he achieves Steps One and Two, the mayor concedes he will "probably have to ask for some sort of temporary tax." He isn't offering specifics, but says he is looking for ideas "outside the box."

The key, Mr. Bell insists, is shared sacrifice. Everyone - taxpayers, municipal employees, and city officials alike - must contribute to a solution.

"There has to be equal pain for everyone," he says. "It's nobody's fault that the economy went south on us. None of us is responsible for getting us here, but all of us are responsible for getting us out. If we do absolutely nothing, somebody else will do it for us. We want to control our own destiny."

Of course, Toledoans have been promised "temporary" tax increases before. So the mayor goes one step further: Within 30 days of the city achieving a level of revenue that suggests an acceptable degree of fiscal recovery, both the temporary tax increase and the temporary employee concessions go away.

That so-called sunset clause, he says, will motivate all sides to seek an equitable budget package that will prepare the city for an economic turnaround.

One of the biggest assets the mayor brings to his budget labors, and to his new job in general, is his evident openness. "I'm not a politician" is a line that ordinarily would cause you to hold onto your wallet, or test your gag reflex.

But when the mayor touches your arm to emphasize a point, or asks you to call him "Mike" or "Chief" instead of "Your Honor," you believe the gesture is spontaneous and sincere. When he says he wants to work productively with other local officials and community leaders on regional initiatives, without wasting time on partisanship, you take him at his word.

When he says that Toledoans "are more critical of ourselves than anyone who comes into this city," he affirms my experience as a newcomer here. And when he says he's willing to let his aides get the credit when things go right, and to shoulder the blame himself when things go wrong, that's the essence of leadership.

It's the sort of leadership Toledo will need to get past its immediate budget crisis and make long-term progress. Asking for higher taxes and employee givebacks won't make him popular. But as Mayor Bell sees things, it's just part of the job.

"You've got to suck it up and go," he says. "We need to fix this boat, but I can't do it by myself. We're asking people to take out a piece of stock on the city. I think people will begrudgingly understand what we have to do."

And if they don't? "Getting re-elected isn't the issue," he says. "I don't own this office - it belongs to the taxpayers. My parents live here, my friends live here. I'm just trying to run this city."

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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