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Published: Saturday, 12/11/2004

If city shuts BCR, it may have to invest to settle discord later

BY ROSE RUSSELL

IN THIS miserable economy, Toledoans with eyes set on greener pastures are moving, and as their tax dollars go with them, the city is plunged deeper into economic crisis.

The sour economy is the reason for all the talk about garbage fees and laying off police officers and fire fighters.

That's why some city employees have received pink slips telling them that they won't have jobs come Dec. 31.

And that's why all the talk about closing swimming pools and shutting down some city agencies, including the Board of Community Relations.

In the face of a $16.8 million projected 2005 budget deficit, city officials must cut $6.4 million from the budget. It is not an easy task.

But in the midst of the budgeting debate, it may seem sensible to eliminate BCR. After all, BCR is fairly invisible and nobody would miss it, some might say. Race relations seem pretty good now, and the city could save the money it appropriates to fund BCR. This year, that amount is $192,000.

So why bother maintaining the agency? Because BCR is vital for the overall health of the city of Toledo. The 58-year-old community agency exists to address and eliminate racial discord and to promote racial harmony. Getting rid of it now could turn back the clock.

The late Lloyd Roulet, as mayor of Toledo, organized the Board of Community Relations in 1946 specifically to address increasing postwar racial tension. He realized then the worth of such an agency. Certainly he would be disappointed to know that the agency is being jeopardized now.

BCR has a 26-member volunteer board and two employees: director Juanita Greene and a secretary. That's only two staff people to field complaints about racial issues in a city with a population of 313,000.

Compare that to Springfield, Ohio, where a comparable board has a staff of 14 people serving a population of 65,000.

Ten years ago, BCR had a 10-member staff. Clearly, those days are long gone. Meanwhile, Toledo's BCR secretary has already received a layoff notice.

There also is talk of putting BCR in with another city office. That seems reasonable. But would the agency have the independence that it needs? It's vital that BCR staff - whether one or two - freely handle complaints and do mediation uninfluenced by another city office.

BCR's worth cannot be measured in dollars, and the agency works behind the scenes. The public isn't notified every time BCR gets involved in a community controversy, and it's probably best that way.

Were you aware that BCR played a role in helping to keep a lid on gang activity last summer?

Were you aware that BCR got involved when the former Sherrill-Harden mortuary directors were charged with abuse of corpses?

Were you aware that BCR helped foster racial harmony during the controversy about renaming Cherry Street for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

Thought so.

BCR may be best known for putting on the Unity Celebration at the University of Toledo on the King holiday in January.

It would be unfortunate, but if BCR must forgo that program to keep its doors open, it should. Hopefully that won't happen, but it's more important that people who experience racial discord, which still occurs, have somewhere to go for redress.

Of course, some Toledoans may think BCR should close because it benefits some demographic groups more than others. But a person of any race never knows if he or she might need to call BCR.

Now is not the time to allow racial conditions to deteriorate, and stressful economic conditions provide the perfect climate for that to happen.

It takes a long time to make inroads on the racial front. I don't believe Toledoans want their city to step back in time and let flourish conditions that could allow Toledo to experience what Cincinnati did a few years ago.

City council members who might be aiming to shut down BCR are only looking at the bottom line, not the big picture.

If they close that office, whenever the city gets back on its financial feet, they could be worried about cleaning up garbage of a very different sort.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

Email rrussell@theblade.com



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