NOW and then, something that seems like a good idea at first glance really isn't. Ordering City of Toledo water meter readers to report housing code violations falls in that category.
We understand how Mayor Carty Finkbeiner felt: Who better to ask to report violations than the 14 Department of Public Utilities employees who read water meters at Toledo's 92,000 homes four times a year?
They are already on the payroll and in the field. No wonder Mr. Finkbeiner likes the concept. If the plan works it could save money, and information about decaying housing could be quickly and efficiently sent to the Department of Neighborhoods.
But the idea is full of uncertainty. Meter readers might face hazards they never planned on or have not been trained for. Though most water meters are now read from outside the home, readers still have to go inside about 10 percent of Toledo dwellings. That raises real concerns as to whether some citizens, aware that the readers are also there as inspectors, could become hostile or worse, and take it out on the utility employees.
The readers are already required to report if they encounter unsafe conditions involving children or senior citizens. Adding another responsibility could result in their being seen, in effect, as government spies.
Unfortunately, Mayor Finkbeiner has dismissed these concerns in his usual shoot-from-the-lip style. "All they have to do is write an address down. I don't even want any debate about it. Just do it," the mayor declared at his quarterly directors' meeting.
Whoa, now, Carty. Healthy debate on matters of public policy can avoid serious mistakes.
We applaud the mayor's zeal to save money, to get by without adding staff to the Department of Neighborhoods, where two of 10 positions are now vacant. Kattie Bond, the director, wants funding for four additional inspectors added to the 2008 budget but the city's looming $10 million deficit may prevent that.
Still, the city should not risk its meter readers being viewed by the citizenry as snoops. Meter readers aren't trained to be inspectors. They are supposed to record water usage, not report homes that are dilapidated, have overgrown lots, scattered trash, or illegally parked cars.
The money that it would take to train meter readers for such duties should be used to hire trained inspectors. Identifying and stopping housing blight is important - so important, in fact, that it needs to be left to those who are properly qualified to do it.