THE LOSS of more than 20 percent of Toledo's police officers surely would make the city less safe for residents and businesses. No one would rationally argue otherwise.
But the layoff notices that Mayor Mike Bell sent last week to 125 patrol officers - and then rescinded, at least for now - had several useful effects. They focused Toledoans' attention on the reality of the city's budget crisis.
And they evidently persuaded the police union and other municipal bargaining units to get serious about discussing the concessions the mayor plausibly says he must have, to help eliminate a massive deficit and enable the city to enact a balanced budget by next week's deadline.
Now if the missing-in-action City Council would resolve finally to do its job, the budget process could become more orderly and inclusive, if no less painful.
The threatened mass layoffs of police dramatize the kind of spending slashes the city soon could face if unions do not grant concessions, if council members do not enact the revenue-raising measures the mayor recommends, and if Toledo voters do not approve a May ballot proposal that would authorize the shift of money to the city's general fund from its capital budget.
Each of the revenue proposals - a tax on sports and entertainment tickets, a higher flat fee for trash collection, and elimination of the city income tax credit given Toledoans who work and pay taxes in other communities - has big drawbacks. Each would hit particular segments of the city's tax base especially hard. But none of Mr. Bell's legion of critics has offered a better comprehensive budget plan.
Instead, there has been much sniping about city leaders' alleged unwillingness to make the sacrifices they demand of others. The mayor has said repeatedly that any pension and health-care givebacks he obtains from union-represented workers will be imposed on all city employees, including elected officials and top executives. A refusal to acknowledge this evenhandedness is an attempt to change the subject.
The sense of urgency that Mayor Bell has sought to convey about the city's fiscal problems, and that other Toledoans are coming to grasp, continues to elude the City Council. Despite the mayor's pleas for timely action on his budget plan, Council members have chosen to defer a vote until March 30 - the next-to-last day they can act.
The council has contributed little more to the budget debate than a chorus of negative responses to the mayor's proposals. That raises the question of what council members are doing to justify holding their jobs, much less make a case that voters should elect some of them to higher offices this year.
The mayor still holds out the possibility of declaring "exigent circumstances" that would enable him to make unilateral changes in city labor contracts. That effort almost surely would land the city in court.
But it doesn't have to be that way. The mayor suspended the police layoffs after an evidently fruitful meeting with union leaders. He recalled layoff notices to 125 city firefighters on the strength of "positive" negotiations with their union. Talks with unions representing civilian employees appear to be making progress as well. That's all promising.
There is no reason that adoption of the city budget has to be an exercise in eleventh-hour brinkmanship, merely because that's the way things have worked in the past. There remains ample time for the administration and union leaders to negotiate in good faith on a reasonable package of concessions.
And there remains ample time for council members to play a productive independent role in the budget process, rather than act like fraternity brothers pulling an all-nighter before final exams. All that is lacking, apparently, is the will.