Last in a series
In a sense, Toledo was a burning building on Jan. 4, 2010, the day Mike Bell became mayor.
And being the trained firefighter that he is, Mayor Bell responded to the scene and put out the blaze, balancing the budget, then hiring nearly 400 new police and firefighters — without raising taxes — and then banking a $5-million surplus.
But can Mr. Bell build a structure, that is, grow Toledo’s economy, as well as save one from burning down?
That’s the question Mr. Bell has to answer to the satisfaction of Toledo voters, who are being wooed by the promises of job creation and expanded city services by his opponents.
Entering the final weeks of the primary campaign, Mr. Bell is facing criticism from city unions and political opponents that his administration has been ineffectual at economic development and that he has exaggerated the size of the deficit he inherited.
Mr. Bell, a political independent, is facing seven challengers in the Sept. 10 primary: independent Councilman D. Michael Collins; Democratic Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez; Democratic City Councilman Joe McNamara; Alan Cox, independent city neighborhood development specialist; Libertarian Michael Konwinski, a retired city finance administrator; unendorsed Republican evangelist Opal Covey, and Don Gozdowski, who has registered as a write-in candidate.
The two highest vote-getters in the primary will face off on Nov. 5.
The 58-year-old mayor, who once seemed slightly uncomfortable in the business suits that a mayor is expected to wear every day, says he believes he’s done a good job and would happily step aside if somebody else could do the job as well as he has.
Coming to town
Michael P. Bell came to Toledo at age 5 when parents Norm and Ora Bell moved here from Louisiana in search of opportunity and a better life. His dad worked in insurance and then with the city, where he became politically active, while Ora Bell cared for the family and became a beautician. Mike grew up on Stickney Avenue, the oldest of four sons, and attended Spring Elementary School and Woodward High School.
He went to the University of Toledo on a football scholarship and served as co-captain of the team. He graduated with a degree in education and business in 1978.
His father’s political activity involved the family. Sometimes they helped him deliver flyers for candidates. Other times, Mr. Bell brought home doughnuts from political rallies.
“That was our whole experience with politics,” Mr. Bell said, “putting flyers on doors and eating doughnuts.”
Mayor Mike Bell, in his office at The Government Center, says he believes he has done a good job as Toledo’s mayor, adding that he would step aside if somebody could do the job better.
Serving the city
After college, he worked for a while as a railroad brakeman, but he landed a job with the fire department in 1980. He became the department’s first black rescue diver and recalls the wonder on the faces of his white colleagues that he, a black man, could so easily swim the laps that were part of the qualification for the job.
“Whites didn’t believe that blacks swim,” Mr. Bell said. He learned how to swim on the Wilson Park swim team as a youth.
Before starting his rise up the ranks, Mr. Bell was laid off for five months in 1980 during a city fiscal crisis, an event seared into his memory and which influenced his decisions as mayor 30 years later.
Mr. Bell also was a recruiter, paramedic, supervisor, and eventually reached the rank of captain in the fire division’s training bureau. In 1990, he was appointed chief, the first black big-city fire chief in Ohio. After he retired as Toledo’s fire chief, Gov. Ted Strickland named him state fire marshal in 2007.
Mr. Bell resigned that job in April, 2009, to run for mayor and defeated endorsed Democrat Keith Wilkowski in the general election with 52.5 percent of the vote.
The city financial crisis that he inherited from former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner set the stage for a rough three and a half years. Mr. Bell has boasted of having erased a $48 million deficit — a claim that some say is an exaggeration.
Mr. Bell says his predecessor and city council left him with a proposed 2010 budget that contained a deficit, overly optimistic revenue projections, and negotiated pay raises and pension “pickups” that were unaffordable, even during the time in which they were negotiated.
“Why would you leave and not have a plan and leave it on the next person? Council should have been demanding it. You don’t want to see it, so politically it was a good thing to ignore it,” Mr. Bell said.
Mr. Finkbeiner contends that Mr. Bell balanced the budget by doing things that he refused to do — such as borrow from capital improvements and the water and sewer funds, by issuing new debt, and by selling city property, rather than taking the more painful steps that Mr. Finkbeiner took of putting employees on furlough, laying off police, and obtaining pay cuts from top administrators.
“The total imbalance that was turned over to Mike was $16.7 million [at the end of 2009], yet Bell is allowed to claim that he bailed us out of a $48 million deficit,” Mr. Finkbeiner said. “Bell didn’t eliminate overtime, have furloughs, or cut salaries. He did virtually nothing.”
The Bell administration issued a two-page memo in November, 2011, to explain the $48 million figure. It said the budget left to him relied on $38.9 million in nonexistent or overly optimistic revenues and carried over an $8.6 million deficit left over from 2009. Total: $47.5 million.
Mr. Bell said the message he received from voters was to maintain services and not raise taxes. To do that, he said, he pushed through “exigent circumstances” — legislation that gave him the leverage to force Toledo’s eight public employee unions to the bargaining table where they accepted concessionary contracts. He said the union leaders refused to tolerate concessions.
“If I hadn’t have been bold enough to propose exigent circumstances, where would we be today? We’d be tracking the same way Detroit is,” Mr. Bell said. Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July because of its inability to pay its debts.
He notes that Toledo’s tax revenues are still $9 million lower than they were in 2007.
“We’re still shooting for stability here. What I get concerned about any of these candidates running is that they’re to take us over the waterfall because they’re promising a lot and can’t deliver anything,” Mr. Bell said.
Mr. Bell said his experience with battling the unions prompted him to sign up with Gov. John Kasich in 2011 to enact a state law limiting public employee bargaining rights, Senate Bill 5. Unions and the Democratic Party teamed up to get a referendum on the ballot, which became Issue 2, and the law was overwhelmingly defeated.
Senate Bill 5
Mr. Bell has contended that he endorsed Senate Bill 5 when it consisted only of “exigent circumstances” and that he became disenchanted with what he saw as an excessive raid on union bargaining rights, though he remained publicly in support.
“You can’t be halfway in and halfway out. I was already in,” Mr. Bell said.
There is no public record of Senate Bill 5 as anything but a flat-out revision of the state’s 1983 collective-bargaining law to weaken the power of public employee unions to favor state and local governments.
Michael Gillis, spokesman for Ohio AFL-CIO, a leading opponent of Senate Bill 5 and a backer of Ms. Lopez, said Mr. Bell knows how unpopular that law was in Toledo and is trying to “ ‘have it both ways.’ ”
“Seventy-five percent of Toledo did not agree with him,” Mr. Gillis said, citing the vote on Issue 2 in Toledo. “The mayor realizes that. He knows the election is 19 days away and he’s trying to be slippery on that.”
“He was laid off in 1980. But he got his job back. He went back to a wonderful career in firefighting, a ladder into the middle class. Became state fire marshal. Now mayor of Toledo. He benefited, but he still sought to remove that ladder for others,” Mr. Gillis said, expressing a widely held view among union members.
In Mr. Bell’s view, “S.B. 5 worked, even though it failed. Because the unions who were saying they weren’t going to negotiate with us all came to the table and negotiated with us and gave us concessions, which stabilized the budget.”
Mr. Bell’s philosophy about economic development is to let business create jobs, and he doesn’t even keep track of jobs that are created or retained during his administration. Former Mayor Finkbeiner, however, kept detailed records.
“Go back in history. What mayor created any business? It’s a lie,” he told listeners at a political forum inside the Ottawa Tavern in downtown Toledo last week. “Business people created the business because they put the money in it.”
According to the Regional Growth Partnership, the nonprofit organization that promotes economic development in northwest Ohio, Toledo had 36 economic development projects in the city and in its joint economic development zones in Monclova Township, Maumee, and Rossford from 2010 through 2012.
Those projects produced a combined $1 billion-plus in capital investment, 3,652 new jobs, and 5,842 retained jobs. The largest projects during that three-year period were a $365 million investment by Chrysler Group LLC at the Jeep assembly plant, generating 1,105 jobs, and the new Hollywood Casino Toledo that opened on the East Side in 2012, to create an expected 1,300 jobs.
Dean Monske, president and CEO of the Regional Growth Partnership and Mr. Bell’s first deputy mayor for external affairs, gives his former boss high marks for creating the environment for economic growth.
The Bell File
Name: Mike Bell
Address: 3010 Hopewell Pl.
Family: Never married.
Political affiliation: None.
Occupation: Mayor of Toledo.
Education: University of Toledo
Campaign Web site: www.mikebellfortoledo.com
“Mayor Bell has played an exceptional role as a professional ambassador for the city of Toledo. Because of the stature the office holds, it is important that person carry a strong image and convey an open, positive message. In that regard, Mayor Bell has been second to none, particularly with the overseas missions,” he said. “The mayor has created an atmosphere where existing businesses feel welcomed in the city and new businesses seek locations in the city limits and downtown.”
According to the Ohio Development Services Agency, which awards job-creation tax credits for the state, Lucas County received received $4 million in tax credits for $582.5 million in investments, with 1,463 jobs created and 3,070 jobs retained — the second highest tax credits in the state during the last three years.
Ms. Lopez, one of Mr. Bell’s opponents, has accused the mayor of chasing “big fish” around the world rather than looking for lucrative opportunities near at hand. Her spokesman, Diane May, noted that two-thirds of the jobs created, according to the growth partnership, came from Chrysler and the Hollywood Casino Toledo, both local businesses that expanded locally.
“The two biggest job creators in these years are here locally. That’s what he should be focusing on — going to places locally to create jobs and investment rather than going all the way to China when there’s already a market with a local investment,” Ms. May said.
In 2013, he attended the Hannover Trade Fair and Toledo Sister City Delmenhorst in Germany and Zug Switzerland, in April, in search of direct foreign investment and jobs for Toledo. Before that were trips to China, Japan, and India.
The highest-profile economic development project under Mr. Bell’s direct control — the Marina District — has remained a grassy field, with the only significant change the demolition of an old power plant on the site.
Mr. Bell pushed through the sale of the 69-acre Marina District to a pair of wealthy Chinese investors in 2011. The Marina District purchase rankled Toledoans who were suspicious of the secrecy of the source of the money. Construction unions feared the developers would turn to nonunion contractors when and if it is developed.
The mayor appears unperturbed about the Marina District.
“We made $3.8 million at a time when our budget was in shambles, and now it’s paying taxes,” Mr. Bell said. He says he’s confident the new owners, Dashing Pacific Group, will start development when they’re ready.
“They’re not going to do it until it’s sustainable, and I don’t blame them for that,” Mr. Bell said. Nor is he a fan of the idea of buying back the Marina District in three years.
“When we need firefighters and police officers, we’re going to buy it back and have the wind blowing across it again? That is pure stupidity,” Mr. Bell said.
Mr. Bell has made few claims about economic development but cites as successes the sale of the downtown Park Inn and Hotel SeaGate to Chinese investors, the move of Hickory Farms Inc.’s headquarters from Maumee to Toledo, and Libbey Inc.’s renewed lease to stay downtown.
Spotlight on Toledo
According to state Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo), Mr. Bell has a high profile in Columbus and has contributed to the city getting more attention from state lawmakers.
“He’s in the news with the governor from time to time, and not only that, you recall he was the [Ohio state] fire marshal and became known around Columbus in that vein. I would say he himself, because of his previous position and because of his trips to Columbus, has put us more in the spotlight,” Ms. Brown said.
Mr. Bell said his relationship with Mr. Kasich, forged by their common experience at overcoming fiscal crises, has benefited Toledo.
“If your mayor has a relationship with a person who is in charge of your whole state, I believe it benefits your citizens,” Mr. Bell said. He said the Ohio Department of Transportation’s work upgrading the I-75 and 475 interchange is an example of Toledo getting favorable treatment.
Mr. Bell’s friendship with Mr. Kasich has resulted in the unofficial support from Ohio’s Republican governor, which has made the Lucas County Republican Party hesitant to endorse a Republican opponent for the first time in recent history.
The relationship has even prompted theories of a statewide run for Mr. Bell, such as the possibility of becoming Mr. Kasich’s 2014 running mate. There is no possibility of that, Mr. Bell said.
“I have no issues with Governor Kasich. I know that a lot of people that live here do, but I do not. I think he has been more than fair with our citizens from the standpoint of the return we’ve gotten from the state and the projects we’ve wanted to do,” Mr. Bell said.