The 2013 budget proposed this week by Toledo Mayor Mike Bell is likely to appeal to city taxpayers because it maintains basic services without raising taxes. But the plan achieves its fragile balance largely by increasing the money it siphons for day-to-day operations from the city’s capital budget — a risky and unsustainable practice.
The $243.5-million operating budget for the next fiscal year includes slight increases in spending — largely for employee pay — and in anticipated revenue from the city income tax and other levies and charges.
The budget predicts about $8 million next year in state aid, down from $21 million last year, a reflection of Columbus’ war on local schools and governments.
Despite the proposed transfer of nearly $14 million from the capital improvement budget, Bell administration officials say they leave enough money in that fund to fix and pave more miles of city streets next year, and to build a fire station and renovate another. Still, such raiding should not become a permanent practice of city budgeting.
The operating budget calls for new recruit classes of police officers and firefighters. These choices appear to reflect Toledoans’ public-safety priorities: The city needs more uniformed employees on its too-often-dangerous streets.
The mayor notes that his budget would spend $175,000 more next year on recreational activities — better than nothing, but a relatively paltry amount. Despite Toledo voters’ rejection last week of a dedicated property tax for parks and recreation, the quality of public space remains a key measure of livability for city residents, especially young people.
The city might need to shift less money from its capital budget if it managed its revenues and spending better. A new audit identifies inadequate record-keeping and compliance with rules by several municipal departments and agencies, in such areas as the city payroll system. Executing the audit’s recommendations for improvement should be an urgent priority for the administration.
Mayor Bell is correct that Toledo’s fiscal condition is greatly improved from the one he inherited in 2010.
His proposed budget could provide a credible foundation for a re-election campaign next year. But Toledo won’t be on really solid fiscal footing until it can pay for operating expenses out of operating revenues, without devouring quite so much of its seed corn.