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Published: Sunday, 5/6/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

Paying to spruce up Toledo's 'front porch'

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

To Toledo City Council members Lindsay Webb and Steven Steel, the phrase "parks and recreation" isn't just the title of a TV sitcom. It's a key to reviving the city.

The lawmakers are assembling a plan to create a dedicated revenue stream for city parks and recreation programs that likely would include a new property tax. Although Mayor Mike Bell's administration backed away from a proposal to gut spending on parks and recreation centers in the new city budget, Ms. Webb worries that recreational opportunities this summer -- especially for young people -- appear "bleak ... wholly insufficient."

In the longer term, Ms. Webb and Mr. Steel insist that expanding and improving the city's recreational facilities are essential to Toledo's quality of life, its capacity for economic development, and the health of its residents.

"Parks and recreation are the welcoming front porch of a community," Ms. Webb told me last week. "But we've cut and cut and cut. Working families are going to the suburbs for recreational opportunities for their children. Our kids are playing in their leagues."

Adds Mr. Steel: "The system has been so starved for so long, it's hanging on by a thread."

Ms. Webb and Mr. Steel are looking at asking City Council to place a tax proposal on the November ballot. At the moment, they're considering a 1-mill levy for 10 years.

That tax would cost the owner of a typical $60,000 house in Toledo $18 a year. It would raise about $3 million annually for parks and recreation operations, Ms. Webb says. It also would help enable the city to sell bonds to pay for capital spending on recreational facilities, she adds.

The new levy would allow city government to eliminate the $1 million annual contribution it makes to parks and recreation programs from its general fund -- money it could use instead to hire police officers, she suggests.

Mr. Steel notes that other local communities -- Sylvania, Perrysburg, Maumee, Oregon, Bowling Green -- pay for parks and recreation through property levies. "You have to invest to see improvements," he says.

A steering committee Ms. Webb and Mr. Steel named to guide the effort includes representatives of local parks and recreation agencies, educational institutions, and groups that work with school-age athletes and other young people. Ms. Webb says organizations such as the area United Way and YMCA have expressed interest in working with the city on a broad recreation initiative.

This month, the committee is surveying Toledoans about their use of city parks and recreational facilities, and how they would like to see the system grow and improve. At the same time, a professional consultant is weighing ideas to revise the city's master plan for its parks, which hasn't been updated in a decade.

Ms. Webb and Mr. Steel expect to present their proposal to their City Council colleagues in mid-June, and hope for action on it by mid-July. At least eight of the 12 council members would have to vote to place a tax issue on the November ballot.

Ms. Webb says Mayor Bell is receptive to the idea. Money from the new tax would enable the city to create more jobs for young people in such areas as park maintenance, and to offer them "recreation in safe places," she says.

With more revenue, Mr. Steel adds, the city could provide more than "a few athletic programs for kids." He anticipates a renewed emphasis on arts and nature study, and on recreational programs for families and older Toledoans -- the sorts of things, he says, that "make people choose a community."

The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, Toledo Public Schools, Imagination Station, and perhaps other local institutions also are likely to ask voters for tax increases or renewals this fall. Ms. Webb acknowledges the danger that tax-averse voters might rebel, no matter how worthwhile the proposals are collectively or how inexpensive they might seem individually. And she concedes that the shoestring budget for a recreation-tax campaign probably wouldn't exceed $30,000.

Still, she argues: "There are competing political realities, but voters are discerning. We hope they'll see this is a fresh concept. We need a long-term vision."

Ms. Webb says she has abandoned a previous proposal to establish a regional recreation authority that would have included Toledo and its suburbs. "Right now, no one is willing to partner with the city of Toledo," she concedes.

Instead, Ms. Webb and Mr. Steel hope to tap into nostalgia among Toledoans of a certain age who remember what the city once offered at its parks and recreation centers.

"It was almost de-facto day care -- crafts, puppet shows, putting on a play, the blow-up swimming pools," Mr. Steel says. "People's eyes mist over for what used to be."

Says Ms. Webb: "We need to remind our community what we used to have -- and what we could have again."

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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