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Published: Friday, 5/22/2009

While Toledo burns

IMPOSING a so-called fire fee to trim the city's remaining $15 million budget deficit is like pouring a glass of water on a raging inferno: It might allow City Council and the mayor to claim they're taking useful action, but it won't come close to solving the problem.

Reconsideration by Council of this scheme, the brainchild of Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, is merely the latest half-way measure from a body that is either unwilling or unable to lead in resolving the budget crisis.

To collect the fee - supposedly capped at $1,000, although there's some doubt about that - the city would bill insurance companies of homeowners for costs incurred when Toledo firefighters respond to fires. There is so much wrong with this idea that it's difficult to know where to start.

What's supposed to make the fee palatable and defuse objections that taxpayers already are paying for fire protection through the city income tax is council President Mark Sobczak's solemn promise that only insurance companies, never homeowners, will be charged for fire calls - even though the language of the ordinance specifically requires owners to be billed.

Knowing what politicians' promises often are worth leads us to believe that it would not be long before homeowners, especially those who foolishly don't have insurance, would be dunned by the cash-starved city.

Councilman George Sarantou assures us that the fee already is covered by homeowner policies and won't increase premiums, but there's no assurance that's the case.

The Ohio Insurance Institute says a survey it conducted shows that as many as 41 percent of local policies don't cover a fire fee and many of those that do will pay only up to $500. Thousands of homeowners, therefore, undoubtedly would see their premiums increase if they choose to add the coverage.

Topping this off is the fact that the fee is estimated to raise only $500,000, and then only if there are enough billable fires. At best, that's a whopping 3.3 percent of the city's projected $15 million deficit; at worst it's pure speculation.

Nothing good can come of this. It's not difficult to imagine homeowners with limited resources feeling more pressure to avoid calling the fire department and trying to put out home fires themselves, a recipe for disaster.

All this because Council refuses to bite the bullet, preferring to nibble around the edges of the city's deficit rather than fix it by making difficult and potentially unpopular decisions.

As City Council prepares to vote on the fire fee on Tuesday, the question is: How long will its members fiddle while Toledo burns?

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