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Published: Friday, 9/4/2009

A leadership deficit

SEPTEMBER has arrived and with it another vote by Toledo City Council that further delays meaningful action to deal with the $7.8 million budget deficit, which every day becomes more difficult and painful to erase.

Toledoans have a right to ask: What games are Council members playing?

In its latest example of inaction on the deficit, Council turned down a proposal to raise trash fees and implement a recycling incentive program that could have shaved $700,000 off this year's shortfall and increased revenues next year by $3.5 million. One member, Frank Szollosi, didn't bother to show up for the vote, but he had indicated he would vote against the measure, so maybe his lack of attendance doesn't matter.

Another, D. Michael Collins, is running for mayor and has said he opposes tax and fee increases as long as his idea for collecting $21 million in delinquent taxes isn't implemented. Had his plan been acted on several months ago when he first brought it up, it could have had a pretty significant impact on the deficit. But there's too little time left this year for it to have much effect, making his argument sound more like electioneering than leadership.

Two others who voted against the fee increase, Tom Waniewski and Lindsay Webb, stand to benefit with increased power if voters, understandably angry over the dysfunctional Council, vote in the Sept. 15 election to pass Issue 2, a charter amendment that would get rid of at-large council members and reduce the size of the body from 12 to nine. They want voters to forget that it's not the size of council but the quality of council members that counts, but that's an argument for another day.

Indeed, council turning down the trash fee increase isn't the core issue either.

At issue is not what council won't do to balance the city's books, but what it will do - and when it will do it.

The hope that a new, consensus-building Council president could forge a positive working relationship with Toledo's confrontational mayor has been shattered by attacks and counterattacks over Issue 1, the so-called Safety First plan, which asks voters to allow $3.9 million in capital improvement funds to be used to offset the budget deficit.

Even assuming Issue 1 passes, that only pays half the bill. Where will the other $3.9 million come from?

As the end of the year gets closer, the city has fewer options, making significant layoffs more likely. With 800 members, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 7, is the city's largest union but its members are not well paid. That leaves the nearly 600-member police force the most likely target, even though layoffs there would mean also losing more than $7 million in federal funds and having to lay off even more officers.

As for when, council members appear content to put off the day of reckoning as long as possible, until after the elections, even though delay will only make the cuts sharper.

The message for Council - and the mayor, too - is to set aside personalities, political aspirations, and personal agendas and put Toledo first by stemming the flow of red ink in the city's finances, and do it soon.



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