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Published: Friday, 7/31/2009

Gone with the wind

IF CITY Council was going to take its budget-balancing cues from Gone With the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara, it could at least have chosen "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again," rather than "I can't think about that right now. If I do I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow."

Once again, council let slip away an opportunity to address the city's multimillion-dollar deficit this week, putting off until tomorrow - or next week, or four months from now, or perhaps even next year - what should have been done months ago.

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and council have been pointing fingers at each other for months, with council members blaming the mayor for bad spending decisions, some of which were made years ago, and the mayor chiding council for inaction. The truth is, there's plenty of blame to share, but pointing fingers won't close the $8.9 million budget gap left after council approved a new contract with the firefighters union.

That contract, like the one recently with police, was not nearly concessionary enough. In many ways, it kicks the budget problem down the road rather than offering a long-term solution. But it's too late to complain. The contracts are what they are, and council and the mayor are tasked with patching the city's fiscal pothole by the end of the year.

Neither will the promise of $7.1 million from the federal COPS Hiring Recovery Program balance the budget. That money, unlike the capital improvement funds voters will be asked in November to release for use in balancing the budget, can't be used for anything except hiring police.

Mayor Finkbeiner wants council to accept responsibility - good or bad - by increasing the refuse collection fee, reducing the tax credit for Toledoans working outside the city, or temporarily raising the payroll tax. Council, it appears, would rather put off that decision, at least until after the Nov. 3 election.

It has even been suggested that some on council want to wait until the new year, then put voters on the spot by seeking a payroll tax increase at a special election in February. That would be a really stupid move, even by risk-averse politicians.

At-large Councilmen Phil Copeland, Joe McNamara, Steven Steel, and George Sarantou all are seeking to retain their seats, a dicey proposition if they raid residents' wallets just before voters go to the polls. And council members might also fear that angry voters will pass the "Nine is Fine" charter amendment that would replace the six at-large seats with three super-districts at a small savings.

But waiting to act is unacceptable, and sloughing the decision off on voters is cowardly. Anyone can be mayor or sit on council in good times. In tough times like these, when hard decisions have to be made, real leaders put aside considerations of party, political futures, or outside jobs and affiliations to do what's right rather than what's easy.

Ohio cities are not allowed to carry a deficit into the next fiscal year. Even worse than the legal ramifications of doing that, however, is the fact that running a deficit could result in the Toledo's bond rating being lowered, making it more difficult - and expensive - for the city to borrow money for large projects for years to come. That means unnecessarily wasting more tax dollars.

Toledo voters deserve better than to have the deficit solution pawned off on them after the November election. Or is the leadership of this city gone with the wind?

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