The surprise deal that will help balance the City of Toledo's 2005 budget could be a very nice Christmas gift to taxpayers - provided it doesn't turn into a lump of coal in the new year.
Granted, finding an additional $3.3 million against a general fund budget of $223.6 million doesn't seem like a big stretch, but that 1 percent shortfall was looming large because it would have required the highly unpopular layoff of 27 police officers and 23 firefighters on Jan. 1.
Now no layoffs of safety forces are said to be required, and the ill-fated garbage surtax has been dumped, although 19 city workers, many of them seasonal employees, still will lose their jobs as the belt-tightening continues at city hall.
Some of the adjustments necessary to squeeze out the $3.3 million are so simple that it is surprising that Mayor Jack Ford and City Council didn't think of them earlier. For example, the city will get back a portion or all of the salaries of police officers by restoring their service to city schools and by assigning them as requested to the city Department of Public Utilities, funded by water and sewer revenue, and the Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority.
Other strategies are more problematic, like the $200,000 in extra tax revenue the City now expects, on the basis of a revised estimate by a University of Toledo professor. If the economy picks up enough to generate the additional revenue, the city is in the clear. If it doesn't, the problem will just come back to bite city officials next year, when they are least equipped to deal with it.
Likewise, the now-projected $400,000 "savings" in health-care costs. This assumes that fewer city workers will get sick this coming year, as happened in 2004, which is always a gamble. Additionally, slashing $300,000 in projected overtime, primarily for police and fire personnel, can only be achieved if crime and fire calls fall, and there are no major disasters, iffy propositions at best.
In short, a series of money-saving assumptions are being made that can fairly said to be outside of normal administrative controls.
The largest single chunk of "found" money is the $561,500 the city will borrow from the special city park fund set up in 1991 to support recreation programs with revenue from the estate of Paul Block, Jr., the late publisher of The Blade. Mayor Ford says this withdrawal is a loan that will be paid back. We will hold him to his word.
The budget deal came together so quickly and completely that it generated speculation that city officials had planned a last-minute solution all along, so as to look like heroes. However, Mayor Ford has no reputation for that kind of political guile. And it is extremely doubtful that the mayor would have been party to such a scheme while the invective of disgruntled taxpayers rained down on his head, as it has over the past several weeks.
Despite the eyebrows of surprise and doubt that it raised, the budget deal is a welcome bit of news for a city whose tax dollars continue to be stretched thin by a foundering economy. The mayor and council's delicate budget-balancing act hasn't rescued city finances but has merely squeezed the eagle a little tighter.