A mayoral forum Monday veered from discussion of whether Toledo could ever contemplate lowering its 2.25 percent income tax rate into an attempt by Democrat Keith Wilkowski to get his opponent, independent Mike Bell, to stop calling him names.
In front of a mayoral forum sponsored by the Northwest Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Bell opened the door when he vowed to stick to the issues in debating Mr. Wilkowski.
Mr. Wilkowski then confronted Mr. Bell over assertions that Mr. Wilkowski had engaged in "back-room" politics.
"I trust that from this point forward you won't put out any statements of me doing 'back-room' deals and just being a back-room politician like you put out today," Mr. Wilkowski said to Mr. Bell.
A somewhat flustered Mr. Bell appeared unaware of the release that had come from his campaign public relations office earlier in the day. He shook Mr. Wilkowski's hand, while saying that he would avoid attacks if Mr. Wilkowski would as well.
"I'm not going to stand there and take a punch and not punch back," Mr. Bell said. "But I think we can play highbrow."
Last week Mr. Bell called Mr. Wilkowski "the ultimate insider politician," a reference, Mr. Bell said, to the obligations Mr. Wilkowski would allegedly owe in response to winning the Democratic Party's endorsement. That drew from Mr. Wilkowski a stinging reply linking Mr. Bell to Republicans who were associates of disgraced former Republican Party fund-raiser Tom Noe.
In a news release earlier yesterday, Mr. Bell was quoted as saying, "While my opponent makes his plans in a back room with a small group of political insiders, the Bell campaign continues to reach out to people from across Toledo."
The exchange capped a 50-minute joint appearance in front of a small group of Latino business people in Zia's restaurant at The Docks in International Park.
Mr. Bell indicated later that he thought Mr. Wilkowski has wrongly accused him of planning to raise taxes, a dispute that came up during yesterday's forum.
"Mike, when you made your announcement you said raising taxes is common sense," Mr. Wilkowski said. "You said raising taxes was an option that if the people wanted you would look at that."
Mr. Bell interrupted to clarify the comment he made when he declared for mayor on March 25.
"I have never said that raising taxes is a common sense approach," Mr. Bell replied.
In his announcement, Mr. Bell was citing the options the city has in trying to balance its budget in the face of a deficit, such as laying off employees, seeking concessions from employee unions, or declaring bankruptcy.
"[A] choice which is not one that is very popular at this time and I'm not even suggesting that we go there, but it's a common-sense thing - you have to raise some taxes. But I'm not suggesting that that occurs," Mr. Bell said at the time.
Yesterday he added, "We can give the people, if we cut too far, the ability to deal with the issue if they don't like where the cuts are, and that is if they want to vote on a levy they can vote on a levy," Mr. Bell said. "The mayor doesn't raise taxes. The people decide that," he added.
Earlier in the discussion, Mr. Wilkowski raised the idea of eventually lowering Toledo's 2.25 percent income tax to bring it more in line with neighboring cities, such as Sylvania's 1.5 percent.
"In the long term we need to be looking at strategies to hold down the cost of government because that is the only way we will be able to arrive at that day where we might be able to reduce taxes," Mr. Wilkowski said.
In response, Mr. Bell noted that the city faces a potential $25 million deficit next year.
"You can't have revenues of $10 million coming in and be spending $20 million," Mr. Bell said. "That would be the utopia where we're actually being able to give money back to people. Right now we gotta just be able to work in our means."
Late yesterday, Mr. Wilkowski issued a statement that, "It's disappointing that Mike Bell is again resorting to negative campaigning instead of engaging in a real conversation about the issues facing middle-class families. Mr. Bell has no plan for jobs and his desperate political attacks won't put one unemployed Toledoan back to work."
A Bell spokesman, Jen Sorgenfrei, said later that Mr. Bell has built a platform based on the input he has received in community forums.
"It's been a very open and inclusive process. We have not seen that with Keith," Ms. Sorgenfrei said.
During the primary campaign, both candidates signed the Clean Campaign Pledge vowing not to engage in personal attacks. Mr. Wilkowski did not claim that his opponent had breached that pact.
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