The Blade/Jetta Fraser
It’s hardly surprising that Toledo Mayor Mike Bell used his annual State of the City address Monday to announce that he will seek re-election this year. His message was largely a campaign speech, extolling — often with justification — the achievements of his administration and promising even better days ahead for “one of the greatest cities in the United States.”
The mayor reminded his Rotary Club audience of the budget crisis he confronted and overcame in the first few months of his term in 2010. Opinions have come to differ about whether the fiscal condition he inherited was quite as dire as his administration continues to assert.
Yet Mr. Bell moved swiftly to shore up the city’s finances, even when his actions placed him at odds with municipal union leaders and their allies on City Council. The mayor’s leadership on this issue remains the key achievement of his term.
Mr. Bell renewed his sensible pitch for regional cooperation on a broad range of issues: private economic development that creates jobs and attracts businesses and investment, a marketing campaign for greater Toledo, and provision of essential public services. He proposed the Toledo area’s participation in an Interstate-75 corridor that not only crosses the Ohio-Michigan border but also extends to Detroit and even into Canada.
He conceded that such initiatives are likely to succeed only to the extent that suburban politicians and taxpayers are willing to put go-it-alone sentiments and suspicions of the central city behind them. But he made a persuasive economic case for the value of collaboration.
Mayor Bell warned Toledoans to expect higher water and sewer rates to pay for improvements to the city’s aging water system mandated by federal and state environmental regulators. “This needs to be fixed,” he said, “and we don’t have a whole lot of time.” But he also offered a reminder that he has kept the city budget balanced without raising taxes.
During his address, the mayor offered other crowd-pleasing statistics: 61 miles of city roads to be rebuilt this year, 165 police officers and 169 firefighters hired during his term, demolition of hundreds of abandoned houses and other vacant buildings, the reinstatement of the rainy-day fund. It’s hard to argue with any of these priorities.
Mayor Bell worked to put the best face on some of the controversies of his term. He said his administration has worked forthrightly to address operating and contracting scandals in the city Department of Neighborhoods.
And he explained the lack of action on redevelopment of the Marina District by asserting that its investors seek long-term sustainability rather than quick results. On both issues, though, the final chapter has yet to be written.
The mayor did not mention other issues that are likely to figure prominently in this year’s mayoral campaign. Most notable among these is his support for state legislation that would have greatly restricted the collective-bargaining rights of public employees — a measure that Toledo and other Ohio voters soundly, and properly, rejected in 2011. Nor did he discuss his administration’s practice of shifting money from the capital budget to pay for day-to-day operations.
Mr. Bell suggested he will take a larger leadership role in improving Toledo’s system of public education. That’s a useful commitment, if he follows through.
In prepared remarks that he did not deliver yesterday, Mr. Bell cited “transparency” as a core value of his administration. We’d dispute that: On issues ranging from Mr. Bell’s official travels, to his administration’s dealings with Chinese investors, to the map of gang activity compiled by the Police Department, his office has shown a penchant for excessive secrecy that is generally unnecessary and often counterproductive.
It’s to be hoped the next mayor, whether Mr. Bell or a challenger, will be more prepared to take Toledoans into his or her confidence. That could help alleviate some of the civic negativism that the mayor complained about on Monday.
Now that the campaign is officially under way, Mayor Bell and the challengers who would succeed him can present their visions of where they want to take Toledo, and explain how they would get there. Then voters will offer their own assessment of the state of the city.