In 10 days, the city of Toledo must ratify its budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. So far, the administration of Mayor D. Michael Collins and City Council have made budget decisions largely ad hoc: a pay raise for white-collar city employees here, a decision not to reopen Ottawa Park’s ice rink there.
The mayor and council have made less of an effort to develop broad fiscal principles that will underlie the budget’s spending decisions. That lapse should concern Toledo taxpayers.
Part of the problem is that Mayor Collins and several council members took office just months ago; they have been working off a budget proposed by former mayor Mike Bell, whom voters denied re-election last November. That plan deferred some big decisions; Mr. Collins did not offer his own budget until this week.
Yet while the mayor and council have been tentative on some issues, they have been decisive on others. Even before the budget is complete, they have given 2.5 percent annual pay raises to nearly 900 civilian city workers, including emergency dispatchers.
The cost of these raises, within a projected general fund of $245 million, is not large. They are likely deserved. But that isn’t the issue. Councilman Tom Waniewski, who opposed the raises, articulated the principle: “We shouldn’t be approving pay raises when we haven’t even approved the budget. ... We don’t have our budget under control.”
Mr. Waniewski’s wisdom was ignored by his colleagues, all of whom supported the pay hikes. Union-represented police officers and firefighters are scheduled to get larger percentage raises this year.
Other budget issues remain to be addressed. The city faces large costs for the brutal winter that just ended, for such things as snow removal, road-salt application, pothole patching, and water-main repairs. These expenses are covered by levies, fees, and assessments rather than general taxes. But is the city making adequate preparations now, should next winter be just as bad?
Toledo’s homeless shelters have had to deal with greater demands and reduced funding at the same time. The administration said this week that the main source of federal funding the city passes along to the shelters will decline next fiscal year, while other sources will rise. Will the city increase its own subsidy of these vital facilities?
The state of Ohio wants to double the rent it charges the city to occupy state-owned One Government Center, retroactive to last July. That decision seems especially graceless given the massive cuts in state aid to local governments, including Toledo, in the past few years, along with state tax cuts that have diminished local revenue. If the state should prevail, how will the city absorb that increase?
Mayor Collins’ budget plan continues to rely on a big shift of money to the general fund from the city’s capital improvement fund. At what point does that strategy compromise the city’s ability to plan for long-term needs?
Speaking Thursday with The Blade’s editorial page, Mayor Collins conceded that “we have not expanded communication to the community to the sufficiency required.” But he pledged to use social media and other venues to create a public dialogue on the budget. That will help.
The budget process will never be easy. But it would be more efficient if the mayor and council could set and express priorities for taxing and spending that Toledoans could understand and respond to.
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