Toledo Mayor Mike Bell announced his intent to run for a second term in a State of the City speech Monday that focused on economic development, regional water service, and Toledo naysayers.
A political independent and former city fire chief and state fire marshal, Mr. Bell spoke to about 200 city business and government leaders at the Downtown Toledo Rotary Club at the Park Inn.
The 57-year-old mayor who had never run for office before his successful 2009 candidacy, said he made up his mind to run while on a trip to an undisclosed location, where he enjoyed the blue sky above him and the freedom to eat breakfast without having someone “spitting” over his food while trying to explain their complaint.
“I’m thinking ‘this is a good life,’” Mr. Bell said, to the laughter of his guests. “But I love my city, and so in closing here I’m just going to let you all know — you’ll be the first — it’s my intent to run for mayor again next year.” The election is this year, with a primary in September and the general election in November, but the mayor would be sworn in in 2014.
The use of the annual State of the City speech to make a political announcement attracted criticism, including from Council President Joe McNamara, a potential Democratic candidate for mayor.
Mr. Bell said his administration has put the city on a secure budget footing by making hard choices.
In a reference to the controversial “exigent circumstances” legislation of 2010, Mr. Bell said, “When the private sector actually starts to turn themselves around it’s called good business practices, but when a city has to do the same thing, sometimes it’s called an attack on workers.”
The exigent circumstances ordinances gave the mayor the power to cut city employee wages and benefits without having to negotiate with city unions at a time when he said the city was facing a $48 million deficit. He said exigent circumstances saved city employees from layoffs and preserved city services without raising taxes.
In 2011, Mr. Bell widened the political gulf between him and city public safety unions by endorsing Issue 2, a Republican-backed ballot question that, if passed, would have undermined collective bargaining rights by public employee unions in Ohio.
“Because we were able to make some hard decisions, that did make some of our employees mad and some of them are still mad, and I understand that, but it does not change what we had to do,” Mr. Bell said. “Now we have a city that has a balanced budget. We actually have a rainy-day fund. We’re able to hire police officers, we’re able to hire firefighters." He pointed to his plans to resurface 61 miles of streets.
Mr. Bell appealed to the crowd to be bigger boosters of Toledo.
“This is one of the greatest cities in the United States. The hardest part is making people who live here believe in this place, making them think that we can actually be something great,” Mr. Bell said.
He said Toledo is starting to get attention from outside the region, citing recent business delegations to the city from China and from Texas.
“We have learned that we have to be able to focus on what you as business people are telling us. We have to understand that we are actually partners together in being able to make this city run,” Mr. Bell said.
The mayor acknowledged some bumps in the road of his term.
He said the revelations of mismanagement in the Department of Neighborhoods in 2011 forced the administration to make painful changes. But he said it had to be done to avoid jeopardizing some $8 million in federal block grants the city receives.
Mr. Bell apologized to real estate agents for his administration’s lack of notice about a new $200 deposit required for all new water service accounts.
After the speech, the mayor said that the deposit policy would not be changed, despite criticism that it is more like a fee than a deposit.
Mr. Bell during his speech admitted to having a “problem with dirt” — actually a reference to sewer sludge.
After a Blade investigation earlier this month and a request from Toledo Councilman D. Michael Collins, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to examine the possible impact of depositing Toledo sewer sludge at Facility 3, the 500-acre, man-made, diked-in area that juts into Maumee Bay.
He said he would do whatever the federal government says needs to be done with the sludge.
Mr. Bell warned his audience to expect increases in water and sewer rates and said the city is running out of time to fix its water treatment plant, potentially threatening city and regional economic development.
He said water is the region’s most valuable asset and committed himself to regionalizing water service, now provided for the vast majority of the metro area by Toledo.
“It can be done in a way that’s going to be very positive for our region. We have to be able to have our water work for us. Any business that comes to this area, it’s going to be about the water issue,” the mayor said.
The mayor said he wanted to start discussions with the mayors of Monroe, Detroit, and Windsor, to share efforts and market the region.
“We either need to figure out how to re-tool ourselves or we’re not going to make it,” Mr. Bell said.
Mr. Bell showed a CBS report on $16 billion of Chinese investment in the United States. Mr. Bell said the Marina District, a formerly city owned parcel on the downtown waterfront that his administration sold to Chinese investors, is now a taxpaying property, and sought to quell complaints about its continuing inactivity.
“I want to see whatever this grows into being something positive for people who live here,” Mr. Bell said. “I said with good business people, they think things out before they put them down. What they are shooting for, what they believe in in this city, is sustainability, they’re going long-term.”
Dashing Pacific Group Ltd., a group of Chinese investors, in 2011 paid the city $3.8 million for the vacant Marina District property and $2.15 million for the Docks restaurant complex.
The mayor faced down several critics of his administration and speech.
Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern said on his Twitter account that Mayor Bell is “our number one target for 2013.”
“At a time when low-income families needed the mayor the most, when they had their backs to the wall, when they were under attack from a governor like John Kasich, Mayor Bell had a couple of choices and he chose to stand with John Kasich and turn away from middle-income families,” Mr. Redfern said in a later interview.
Mr. Bell blew off Mr. Redfern’s declaration.
“I am proud that the man who doesn’t have a party is your number one concern,” he said in open response to Mr. Redfern.
Mr. McNamara, a possible Democratic candidate for mayor, said Mr. Bell’s state of the city was “a really bad speech.”
“It wasn’t focused on the lives of people in Toledo,” Mr. McNamara said. “We have an 8.2 percent unemployment rate and the economic development focus should be on people and jobs, but this mayor talked about business and profits. Business and profits are great, [but] it doesn’t lead to jobs for the people who live here. That is what’s important.”
Mr. McNamara contested the mayor on safety, pointing out that there are fewer police patrolmen working now than before he took office. There were 469 patrolmen in 2009 while there are 427 currently, plus 40 in the academy.
He also said the mayor did not address neighborhoods other than to point out the city is scheduled to raze 600 blighted homes this year.
“I want to see the mayor of Toledo be more aggressive and forward about strengthening our neighborhoods, about helping the problem of abandoned homes,” Mr. McNamara said. “Then there was the announcement. I came here to hear about the state of the city, not a political rally. ... I don’t think it’s an appropriate use of the state of the city [address].”
Bell spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said Mr. Bell has hired more police and fire fighters during his term than previous administrations.
“The mayor made adequate police and fire staffing a priority and the records show that he has delivered on that,” Ms.Sorgenfrei said.
The mayor responded to Mr. McNamara’s criticism of his focus on business and profits by saying the unemployment rate has dropped since he took office.
“I talked about the bottom line of profits because, from the standpoint of running a city, when those profits are affected, it affects the service, and a city is essentially a service agency,” Mr. Bell said.
Also expected to run for mayor are Democratic Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez, former city Clerk of Courts Theresa Gabriel, and city union head Alan Cox.
Republican county chairman Jon Stainbrook said the party’s endorsement will be made by a vote of the executive committee, but he admitted the party could be split between endorsing Ms. Gabriel, who is a Republican, and Mr. Bell, who has a strong relationship with Mr. Kasich and who is already supported by prominent Republicans.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Mr. Stainbrook said. “But it’s still early in the planning stages.”
Lucas County Democratic Chairman Ron Rothenbuhler said that Mr. Bell is “more vulnerable” than in 2009 because of his support of Mr. Kasich on Issue 2, exigent circumstances, and the lack of movement in the Marina District.
Councilman George Sarantou, a Republican, said the mayor made some good points regarding international business and regionalism.
But Mr. Sarantou also said it was not appropriate for Mr. Bell to announce his intent to run for re-election during the speech.
“This was a state of the city address regarding the future of the city of Toledo. I think another forum would have been appropriate,” he said.
Mr. Bell said he “didn’t think twice” about announcing his re-election campaign in the speech.
Contact Tom Troy at: email@example.com or 419-724-6058.