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Published: Saturday, 10/24/2009

Wilkowski defends 1989 vote to hike sales tax in county

Toledo mayoral candidates Mike Bell, left, and Keith Wilkowski participate in a Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce forum. Toledo mayoral candidates Mike Bell, left, and Keith Wilkowski participate in a Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce forum.

Mayoral candidate Keith Wil kowski, who has made opposition to a tax increase a big part of his campaign, Friday said the circumstances facing Toledo are “totally different” from when he voted in 1989 to raise Lucas County’s sales tax by 50 percent.

Mr. Wilkowski was asked about that tax increase during a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce and broadcast by WGTE-TV Channel 30.

Mr. Wilkowski, the endorsed Democrat, and his opponent, independent Mike Bell, were questioned during the 90-minute forum on a variety of topics, along with candidates for Toledo City Council and the Toledo Board of Education.

Mr. Wilkowski was a Lucas County commissioner in 1989 and 1990 and joined a 3-0 vote on Dec. 7, 1989, to raise the county’s portion of the state sales tax from 1 percent to 1.5 percent, which brought the total sales tax to 6.5 percent.

The tax increase, enacted in two 0.25-percent increments — one continuing, one to expire after three years, was overwhelmingly repealed by voters in May, 1990.

Mr. Wilkowski resigned from the board of commissioners later that year to become the city of Toledo law director and did not run again for public office until 2005.

Mr. Wilkowski told the moderator, Blade ombudsman Jack Lessenberry, that “the circumstances are totally different” and that a tax increase now would hasten Toledo’s loss of population.

He noted Toledo’s loss of population over his lifetime, from nearly 400,000 to about 300,000 now.

“Our problem is not that our people don’t pay enough taxes. Our problem is that we don’t have enough people,” Mr. Wilkowski said.

“The reason that I believe raising taxes in this environment would be the absolutely wrong thing to do is that we’re going to drive people out and make our budget deficit worse,” he said.

At the time, commissioners said they needed to expand jail space and help law enforcement combat a growing drug problem. Joining Mr. Wilkowski, who made the motion for the 0.25 percent continuing sales tax increase, were fellow Democrats Sandy Isenberg and James Holzemer.

In 1993, Lucas County voters approved a 0.25-percent hike in the sales tax with the money dedicated to providing emergency services, bringing the county tax to its present 1.25 percent level and the combined tax rate to 6.25 percent.

As a candidate, Mr. Wilkowski has taken a hard line against raising the city’s income tax, and bashes his opponent in TV ads for leaving the door wide open for a citizen campaign to boost the tax.

Mr. Bell ignored Mr. Wilkowski's record of voting for a tax increase in his response during the Chamber of Commerce forum, reiterating his willingness to consider a tax increase if it has popular support after budget cuts are enacted.

“The people don't want any new taxes, they don't want any new fees, but after you make the adjustments sometimes people become uncomfortable. If they were OK with something being a little bit different from the standpoint of we have to increase something to be able to make it work for our city, then I will listen to them,” Mr. Bell said.

According to the U.S. census, Toledo's population peaked at 383,818 people in 1970, following a couple decades of annexations in Washington and Adams townships that doubled the city's land area. Since then, population has declined to an estimated 310,925.

The 90-minute forum will be rebroadcast at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow on Buckeye CableSystem's Community Channel 69.

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

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