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Realism on city budget


CTY budget02p 3/1/2010 The Blade/Dave Zapotosky Caption: Toledo Mayor Mike Bell talks about the balanced budget proposal he submitted to city council earlier in the afternoon, during a press conference in his office in One Government Center, Monday, March 1, 2010.

The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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TOLEDO Mayor Mike Bell is appropriately ratcheting up the pressure on opponents of his plan to eliminate the city's massive budget deficit. He is offering specific, and unsettling, examples of the things he may have to do if citizens, municipal unions, and elected officials reject his proposed combination of tax increases, employee concessions, and big spending cuts.

The mayor's plan certainly is not the only alternative for eliminating the $48 million deficit - more than one-fifth of the city's general fund. But those who don't like it have not only an opportunity but also an obligation to propose better ideas before the city must enact a balanced budget at the end of the month. "Just say no" won't work.

Among the options Mayor Bell says he may have to resort to if his plan fails: Not only would the city not add police officers this year and next year, but current officers and firefighters might be laid off. Hundreds of civilian employees would be subject to furloughs as well.

Trash could be collected only every other week. City parks, swimming pools, and other recreation programs could close. Entire departments could be axed.

And if the city still can't balance its budget, meet its payroll, and keep current on its debt, it likely would declare a "fiscal emergency." That condition could enable bureaucrats in Columbus to help make basic decisions about city operations, such as borrowing money, that now reside with Toledoans. Such a declaration even could be the first step toward municipal bankruptcy, although the Bell administration insists it isn't contemplating that possibility.

Unlike the Toledo Public Schools, which is offering a similarly devastating menu of cost-cutting options if voters reject its proposal for a new tax on earned income on the May 4 ballot, Mayor Bell is proposing a comprehensive, balanced plan to fix the city budget mess. His backup proposal presents the worst case, but it is not merely a scare tactic.

The threats would be eased if city voters approve a measure on the May 4 ballot that would shift money from the city's capital program to its operating budget. Mayor Bell continues to try to persuade - or force - unions to accept his reasonable proposal that city employees bear more of the cost of their pension contributions and health benefits.

More controversial are the revenue-raising measures the mayor is proposing: a new 8-percent tax on sports and entertainment tickets, a $15-a-month fee for household trash collection, and elimination of the city tax credit for Toledo residents who work and pay taxes in other communities.

Mayor Bell properly pledges that at least some of these measures would be temporary, and would go away once the city achieves fiscal recovery. But each of these approaches has problems, and opponents offer credible arguments against the pain they would inflict on city taxpayers and institutions.

At some point, though, "do something else" or "tax somebody else" is not an adequate rebuttal. Mayor Bell says he welcomes other ideas. He needs to hear them now.

Meanwhile, the city is taking new steps to collect back taxes and fees. It is directing police to tow or disable the vehicles of scofflaws with unpaid traffic tickets. The mayor estimates the city can collect $1.2 million from this crackdown, out of $6 million owed. The only question is why the city waited so long to go after this money so assertively.

Incredibly, some members of City Council - who are far more quick to say what they oppose than what they would support - challenge even this measure as an improper use of police resources. Encouraging disrespect for the law by failing to enforce it imposes its own costs, tangible and otherwise.

Some critics say that a drastic move, such as a declaration of fiscal emergency, would force the city to make tough choices about what it can and can't afford to do. But the city can, and should, undertake such a review without the threat of a state takeover.

That will require a sense of realism - among taxpayers, voters, employees, and politicians - about the city's needs and likely resources.

Demagogy and denial will only get in the way of the city's search for solutions.

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