COLUMBUS -- Toledo Mayor Mike Bell is the face of local government in a TV ad that will start airing Wednesday in an attempt to persuade voters that Ohio's new law restricting public-employee collective bargaining is necessary to give officials like him the tools to balance their budgets.
Speaking with a view of Toledo behind him and over a picture of him as a city firefighter, Mr. Bell talks in the ad about his own experience with government cutbacks.
"Years ago, I lost my job as a firefighter because my city ran out of money, so as mayor I'm working to fix my city without laying off good people or raising taxes,'' he says. "That's why I support Issue 2. I know firsthand that Issue 2 will give communities the tools they need to get spending under control and balance their budgets without raising taxes on you or laying off good employees.''
As he talks about laying off employees, the ad shows a rear view of a firefighter in uniform walking hand in hand with a child also in uniform.
Mr. Bell, who served as city fire chief and state fire marshal, last week became the first mayor of a major Ohio city to back Senate Bill 5 and vow to join the fight to defend it from a voter referendum on Nov. 8. The campaign said the ad was not taped in the mayor's office or on public property.
The Building a Better Ohio ad marks the second shot fired in what is expected to be an expensive and bitter campaign.
The anti-Senate Bill 5 committee, We Are Ohio, took advantage of a labor-friendly holiday last weekend to launch its first ad, seizing on an issue they contend could be "the difference between life and death.''
The We Are Ohio ad focuses on staffing, a key issue in contract talks between the city and Toledo Firefighters Local 92. If Senate Bill 5 were law, it would be left to the city, not labor contracts, to determine staffing levels, whether in an office, in a squad car, or on a fire truck. We Are Ohio has downplayed the influence of Mr. Bell, noting he is one man to the 1.3 million people who signed petitions to put the law to a voter referendum.
The ad featuring Mr. Bell is the first from Building a Better Ohio, the largely business and Republican-backed committee that opted to sit out the Labor Day weekend.
Among its many provisions, Senate Bill 5 limits the subjects of contract talks to wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. After complaints from firefighters, police, and other public safety employees, Republican lawmakers added a provision before final passage that allows them to also negotiate over safety equipment.
But staffing levels would be considered a management right not subject to mandatory negotiation.
Staffing of 103
Toledo's contract with the firefighters union requires a minimum of 103 firefighters on duty at all times. The minimum levels for responders are four people per water engine truck, three per ladder truck, and three per squad truck.
"There's always a fine line between safety and efficiency,'' said Dan Desmond, firefighters' union vice president. "That was a line used by Mayor Bell when he was chief.''
Mr. Desmond said the city twice went after minimum staffing levels, with the issue going to arbitration in the 1990s. While the city could voluntarily address minimum staffing levels with the union under Senate Bill 5, Mr. Desmond said there's no reason to expect that it would.
"If this bill goes through, we won't be negotiating anymore,'' he said, noting that the Toledo City Council, or essentially management, would have the final say on a contract. Senate Bill 5 would eliminate binding arbitration, the current practice under which an independent third-party fashions a final contract to resolve disputes involving public safety employees.
"Effectively, it's not negotiating,'' Mr. Desmond said. "There's no third party. This is not collective bargaining any longer.''
Better Ohio spokesman Jason Mauk said it comes down to accountability.
"That means the fire chief and the police commander deciding what's best for the community when it comes to staffing,'' he said. "School superintendents should be staffing classrooms because they know the educational goals and financial realities.
"Nothing in Issue 2 says that a union cannot appeal for staffing or support needs,'' Mr. Mauk said. "It simply says those decisions need to be made outside the mandates of a union contract and by people who are accountable to taxpayers for managing our public services.''
Bell spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said there were 20 call-offs by firefighters during the last weekend of August as the employees apparently used leftover sick time.
"If we have 107 scheduled and five people call off, that puts us at 102,'' she said. "That means we have to recall a minimum of one person (for the weekend). That's $1,000. … I think the argument could be made that over a holiday weekend, you may have a greater need than on a given Wednesday. On St. Patrick's Day, you may need higher staffing than on any random Thursday.
"With the city budget what it is, staffing levels in all departments what they are, and available manpower what it is, appropriate staffing is a priority,'' she said. "But when you get 20 call-offs, you don't get the sense that it's as much a priority for them as is asserted in this TV commercial.''
Public safety issue
We Are Ohio spokesman Melissa Fazekas said the committee chose a subject for its first ad that it felt would resonate with Ohioans.
"Public safety is really important to local communities,'' she said. "As people learn more about Senate Bill 5, they learn how detrimental it would be to their communities.''
As of the end of June, We Are Ohio had spent $4.3 million in direct cash and in-kind contributions, most of it from unions, to collect signatures to put the issue on the ballot. It still had a bank balance of $2.6 million at that time with more than three months to go before Ohioans go to the polls.
Building a Better Ohio, the political action committee, has not reported spending a penny, although activity behind the scenes should show up when both sides next have to report their spending and fund-raising on Oct. 27. Mr. Mauk said the parent, nonprofit corporation by the same name remains committed to voluntarily disclosing where it received its money, but no date for that disclosure has been set.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com, or 614-221-0496.