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Published: Friday, 10/9/2009

City budget, economy dominate forums

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

Like two political brawlers kicking up dust all over town, Toledo's two mayoral candidates faced off in a series of joint appearances yesterday, with Keith Wilkowski offering a “third way” between raising taxes and slashing services and Mike Bell warning that “there is no magic wand.”

Toledo's dire budget condition and how to restart the city's economy were the twin themes of Mr. Bell and Mr. Wilkowski, beginning with their appearance before a coalition of Toledo housing advocates at Collingwood Presbyterian Church in Toledo, continuing with the Toledo Trucking Association at a lunch in Sylvania, and ending at a meeting of the Home Builders Association of Greater Toledo in Arrowhead Park in Maumee.

“I am absolutely committed to not raising taxes. Some suggest we have only two choices: to raise taxes or reduce services. I say there is a third way,” said Mr. Wilkowski, an endorsed Democrat.

He said the third way is to combine government functions with other local jurisdictions, of which there are 52 in Lucas County alone, including all the cities, townships, school districts, and county entities.

Mr. Bell, a political independent, also has advocated consolidating services and has emphasized regional cooperation throughout his campaign, but suggested others are sugar-coating the problem.

“For too long, we've told people we have this magic wand. In the meantime we are going broke. We spend more money than we take in,” he said.

Mr. Bell said the choices facing the next mayor are will be politically difficult.

“If you do it the right way you're probably going to be a one-term mayor because if you do, you're not going to be very popular,” Mr. Bell said.

He said he is committed to governing with the income tax revenues the city currently gets, yet has suggested the public may back an increase in taxes when they realize what services would have to be cut to balance the city's budget.

Mr. Wilkowski has flatly ruled out an income tax increase, and has interpreted Mr. Bell's statements as indicating he is open to a tax increase.

At the Trucking Association meeting, a questioner brought up Mr. Wilkowski's long association with the Democratic Party, of which he was Lucas County chairman 1994 to 1997, saying he was part of the establishment that has governed Toledo for a long time.

Mr. Wilkowski said he has been out of elective office since 1990, when he started a four-year stint as city law director.

“The problem is not that I've been in government too long. The problem is that I haven't been in government long enough,” he said.

“The city has been overspending, it's true, but Mike has been part of the administration that negotiated contracts that we can't afford,” Mr. Wilkowski said. “I've been in the private sector.”

Under city police and fire contracts negotiated since the late 1990s, the city has taken over paying employees' share of the pension contribution, in addition to the city's share as employer.

Mr. Bell said the fire chief had no control over salaries and benefits, and said he was proud of what he had accomplished.

“The portions of the contract a fire chief deals with are noneconomic,” Mr. Bell said. He said under his leadership the city went one full year without a fire death and through another nearly two-year period with no fire-related fatalities.

“There is not another major city anywhere in the United States that can say they did that,” Mr. Bell said.

Speaking to the housing advocates, both promised to check inadequate housing, expand land banking, and help the Toledo-Lucas County Housing Fund reach its goal of $1 million.

Mr. Wilkowski gave an unqualified “yes” in answer to whether he would continue allocating 30 percent of the Community Development Block Grant to housing and social service organizations.

Mr. Bell hedged his answer, saying, “I don't see a reason why we wouldn't, but we really have to look at the whole budget.”

Mr. Bell wrapped up the evening with the sixth of a series of his “Community Meetings.” The event, held at Navy Bistro at The Docks and attended by 52 people, was aimed largely at developing an action plan for Mr. Bell to implement in his first 100 days as mayor if he is elected.

Mr. Wilkowski attended the Servant Leadership Center's annual banquet at Parkway Plaza, honoring, among others, the late Robert Brundage, a community activist who died July 7 after being knocked to the ground and having his bicycle stolen.

Contact Tom Troy at:tomtroy@theblade.comor 419-724-6058.



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