Mayor Mike Bell, left, said the neighborhoods department is better than when he took office. Challenger D. Michael Collins said it needs to be restructured.
Mayor Mike Bell doesn’t micromanage his staff, and he won’t micromanage neighborhoods.
“I’m never going to be a micromanager. It is not my style,” the mayor said before offering a fire analogy — as the former Toledo fire chief and state fire marshal often does.
“It’s like the fire chief running inside the building to see what the lieutenants are doing, because they are telling him on the radio what’s going on inside the building while it’s burning,” he said. “It doesn’t work like that.”
D. Michael Collins, the councilman seeking to unseat the incumbent mayor, has his own plan for Toledo’s troubled neighborhoods. He’s vowed to bolster neighborhoods by working with residents to clean them up, which will, he says, make them safer, make the city more attractive for business development, and attract new residents.
Like clockwork every four years, the state of neighborhoods troubled by blight — abandoned houses, crime, potholes, broken sidewalks, litter, sinkholes, filthy alleys, overgrown lots, and even rats — has become a major issue in the mayor’s race.
The two men are asked over and over: What will you do for neighborhoods?
Their answers are essentially the same: Help you make them better.
The two men have miles between them on such issues as union rights, but just a few blocks separating them when it comes to neighborhoods. They both want neighborhoods looking better, and they both want residents to help make that happen.
Mr. Collins’ plan differs because it includes a restructuring of the Toledo Department of Neighborhoods — reducing management by 25 percent, hiring four more code-enforcement inspectors, changing work assignments and using new technology to increase inspector productivity, increasing nuisance-abatement enforcement by 40 percent, and creating a code-enforcement task force to recommend changes to nuisance-abatement procedures.
“I am going to look at each neighborhood as they are defined,” Mr. Collins said. “Each has their own individual needs and issues and I firmly believe [in] a more proactive responsibility to the individual neighborhoods. We will shore up our city neighborhood by neighborhood instead of only reacting to the emergencies.”
Mr. Bell said Mr. Collins’ plan to “dismantle” the neighborhoods department is unrealistic and would undermine programs that do things such as rehab houses or raze dilapidated structures.
Mr. Collins has for nearly two months pushed a concept called “Tidy Towns.”
The program would be part of Block Watch and give individual neighborhoods, and the development corporations within them, more active roles in cleaning up the blight — such as mowing lawns and cleaning up trash. More communication, Mr. Collins said, is needed between residents and the city to make such an effort work.
Mr. Bell has been criticized for nearly four years for not paying enough attention to Toledo’s neighborhoods.
“Why do people think I don’t care about neighborhoods?” he asked. “We have torn down 1,150 vacant homes in a four-year period, we have put close to $20 million in reinvesting in residential structures — which is about 900 residential structures in some format or another. We have taken blighted areas and worked with the county land bank so it is to the benefit of homeowners who may want double lots, and we have gone into blighted areas and fixed streets and other infrastructure concerns.”
He pointed to the city’s record-breaking street-repaving program in 2013 — 61 miles, with four-lane or wider streets counted double — and that overall crime in the city has declined.
“I’m sorry I have not done enough press conferences to make people feel comfortable that I am doing something, but actions speak louder than words,” Mr. Bell said. “We have fixed the $48 million deficit, we have added as many police officers as we could, we have added data-driven policing, which is driving down the crime rate, and we are fixing the infrastructure — and all that within what people asked me to do and that is, ‘Do not raise my taxes.’ ”
Among barbs lobbed at Mr. Bell is the notion that he cared more about the Far East the past four years than he did the east side, which refers to his several trips to China as opposed to time spent in East Toledo.
Reviews of his efforts to better neighborhoods are mixed.
Molly Tomaszewski, a member of the Burroughs Neighborhood Organization executive board, said the mayor hasn’t been responsive to its needs but, at the same time, she said the mayor’s appointed directors and commissioners bend over backward to help neighborhoods.
“Our main concern was contacting the Department of Neighborhoods and seeing if we could get things cleaned up,” Ms. Tomaszewski said. “We started feeling unsafe as more kids started walking the streets, more tagging, more breaking and entering.”
Both Mr. Bell and Mr. Collins promised a police captain would be assigned as a direct contact person for the neighborhood group.
The mayor and his officials got a similar review in West Toledo’s Library Village neighborhood.
Jane Mullikin, Library Village Block Watch area leader, said the neighborhood has been declining for years, with problems including foreclosures, rowdy teenagers, and break-ins.
“As far as the response from the administration and City Council, it has been pretty good," Ms. Mullikin said. “Maybe not the mayor himself, but just the higher-ups in the administration are always very receptive. We are one of those corridors that got increased patrols, and we asked for that mobile camera and we got it right away.”
Back in South Toledo, an appearance by Mr. Bell at an Arlington Neighborhood Association meeting two years ago struck a nerve with residents that is remembered today.
Ms. Tomaszewski said the mayor was asked for his vision of South Toledo. His response: He had no vision for South Toledo, she said.
The mayor doesn’t deny making the statement but argues it has been taken out of context.
“Why would I have a vision for someone else’s neighborhood more than they would?” he said. “I think the vision needs to come from the people who live there and government has to figure out how to help them find their vision. I have a vision for where I live in West Toledo and the Old Orchard area, but for me to evoke my vision in an area where I don’t live without asking what their vision is, is a bit arrogant, I think.”
Mr. Bell referred to his opponent’s vision for Point Place as an example.
In September, when the primary mayoral candidates were invited to Point Place, Mr. Collins offered a plan to define the area more as a nautical neighborhood.
“Everything about Point Place should be nautical,” Mr. Collins said at the at the Friendship Park Community Center. “We are talking about defining the neighborhood as a community; we are talking about protecting the housing stock.”
That’s already in the works, Mayor Bell said.
“They came to me about making a nautical village three years ago, and we have been working on it for three years. So it was their vision, not mine,” he said. “Even trying to get a federal grant for dredging the Cullen Park area; building up the area around the Howard H. & Mary A. Pinkley Memorial Path, or just being able to fix up the lighthouse on Summit Street and getting it to look nice.”
Mr. Bell said he wants neighbors to take care of their own neighborhoods rather than waiting for the city to do it.
“I am trying to empower different portions of our community to actually have a voice in their destiny,” he said. “We are still working with a very lean budget, and the services people are requesting from us do not come free. I have very few volunteers who come to work every day, so yes, there are always finances involved in it.”
Mr. Collins said his plans would not require any additional funding but would call for reallocation of funds. A part of Mr. Collins’ plan focuses on public safety and crime.
The public-safety platform includes hiring an additional 40 police officers every September for four years — the duration of a mayoral term.
Officers no longer would receive random nightly assignments but instead would be designated to a particular beat to get to know residents and the problems that particular neighborhood faces, Mr. Collins said.
Currently, there are officers with assigned beats, but a portion of crews works in “reserve,” assigned nightly to different areas on an as-needed basis.
Mr. Collins also said he would reopen the police department’s shuttered Northwest District Station within 90 days of taking office, subject to the building’s repair needs.
Part of Mr. Collins’ campaign about neighborhoods centers on the neighborhoods department changes, but he’s also out there trying to remind voters how that department came under scrutiny in late November, 2011, when a Blade investigation highlighted allegations of bid rigging, favoritism, and poor supervision. The FBI and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sent investigators to probe the department.
Many of the things uncovered by the Blade investigation occurred during previous administrations.
Every year, the neighborhoods department distributes millions of federal grant dollars, making it one of the most important spigots of construction money in northwest Ohio. The year of the newspaper’s investigation, the city spent more than $27 million in federal housing and development funds.
Among the findings was discovery of a development company owned by Mr. Bell’s niece Shayla Bell, whose firm received nearly $1 million in federal grants and loans administered by the neighborhoods department. She had no prior construction or development experience when she started the company at age 25, shortly after her uncle took office. The mayor said Ms. Bell earned the contracts with no assistance from him.
Mr. Collins, when asked about neighborhoods, stressed that Ms. Bell’s involvement in federally funded, city-approved contracts was improper.
“It starts in the neighborhoods with Shayla Bell,” Mr. Collins said. “That’s where she got her money. ... That is something that I would not have subscribed to had I been in his same position. I am not going to have a relative pop up and all of a sudden become an entrepreneur as a result of my position as mayor.”
In January, 2012, two top officials in the neighborhoods department, Director Kattie Bond and Housing Commissioner Mike Badik, were fired amid ongoing city and federal investigations.
Mr. Bell said the neighborhoods department is “a lot better than it was” when he was elected in 2009.
“From where we started to where we are today, we have come miles,” he said. “Some people think we have this magical money we are holding back for homeless shelters and neighborhoods, but we are not holding back.”
However, the mayor said the federal investigation is not complete.
“They have never closed the case,” he said. “They may be in a standstill or just monitoring. It’s not focused on the administration anymore, it is out in the streets with people who may have contracted.”