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Published: Tuesday, 3/6/2007

Plugging deficit carries political risks for council

BY JIM TANKERSLEY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

For a city councilman, there s only one thing more politically perilous than fixing a hole in the budget: fixing that hole in an election year.

Balanced budgets are about choices. In the case of Toledo s nearly $12 million shortfall this year when a third of the council is running for re-election and projected $17 million deficit next year, all the choices figure to upset someone important.

A tax increase would irk business leaders. City layoffs, or requests for contract concessions, would upset powerful labor unions. Councilmen and analysts expect voters will balk at both options, along with hiring fewer police and firefighters, charging for trash collection, or closing parks and pools.

Even a relatively small savings can come with a hefty political price tag as evidenced by Mayor Carty Finkbeiner s proposal last week to fold the city s Affirmative Action/Contract Compliance division into other departments, which immediately drew protests from influential black leaders.

Council s going to have to buck up with some courage, said Ellen Grachek, a Democratic district councilman who will not seek re-election this fall. In an election year, nobody wants to cut anything.

But if there s a glimmer of political hope for worried incumbents, this is it: Toledo voters have shown little willingness to punish city leaders for budget-balancing actions.

The best comparison is 1981, when the city council slashed staff, closed pools, and tried to raise Toledo s income tax to balance the budget. Voters protested the cuts and rejected the tax increase though a similar increase passed a year later but all seven councilmen seeking re-election held their seats.

Mayor Doug DeGood was also re-elected, edging an upstart Republican councilman who supported the tax increase but slammed the mayor s handling of everything else budget-related.

That councilman? Carty Finkbeiner. Mr. Finkbeiner is now a Democrat and, as mayor, pushing a budget fix that includes some of the moves he decried 27 years ago.

For example, the Finkbeiner plan which centers around a $6 monthly refuse collection fee and the elimination of 124 city jobs would close municipal swimming pools. In 1981, The Blade quoted Mr. Finkbeiner as saying pool closures and other cuts had brought shame on our city.

Mr. Finkbeiner said yesterday that he feels badly about proposing cuts he once criticized. But he added, having now served, since those days, a lot of years, I have seen the use of our swimming pools reduced rather dramatically.

The foundations of Toledo politics haven t changed much over time. Business leaders and labor unions continue to underwrite many council campaigns and to lobby the winners heavily against taxes and for jobs and benefits, respectively.

Voters continue to prize public safety services, and candidates continue to court police and fire endorsements accordingly.

Ambition is always a complication. In 1981, Democrats accused Mr. Finkbeiner of putting mayoral ambitions ahead of a budget fix. This year, Mr. Finkbeiner s chief budget critic on council is Democrat Frank Szollosi, who is flirting with a 2009 run for mayor.

The four Republicans on council know any vote to raise taxes can haunt them in a campaign for higher office.

When George Sarantou, the council finance committee chairman, ran for county commissioner, his GOP primary opponent dubbed him a tax-raiser for voting to raise special-assessment fees that fund services. Mr. Sarantou won the primary anyway.

To help bridge a 1971 budget deficit, council levied a $2 per month garbage fee (that would be $10 today, after adjusting for inflation). Residents petitioned to put the question to voters, who rejected the fee by more than 4-to-1.

Democrats worried about voter support for a tax hike in 1981; several council Democrats, including Mr. Szollosi, say they re just as concerned today.

Tax increases are never easy at all, said Ben Konop, one of three Democratic Lucas County commissioners who voted this year to raise a county hotel tax to help fund a downtown arena. No matter what economic climate you re in, it s a tough sell.

Councilmen in both parties also say it could prove difficult to renegotiate contracts with police, fire, or other unions in order to reduce salaries or the pension payments.

Ms. Grachek calls concessions a bad word in budget discussions.

The four incumbents up for re-election Michael Ashford, Mark Craig, Joe Birmingham, and Wilma Brown and the five at-large candidates eligible to run again in 2009, might take solace in Mr. DeGood s 1981 victory, or in analysts agreement that former Mayor Jack Ford s failure to attract jobs, and not any budget-balancing moves, led to his 2003 defeat.

They can take cues from longtime Democratic consultant Jim Ruvolo, who says voters understand the city s dilemma but need to understand their leaders response. Voters want to know there s some rational reasons you re doing the things you re doing, Mr. Ruvolo said.

Of course, that doesn t make the doing any easier.

We re in for some tough decisions, Mr. Sarantou said recently. Some unpopular decisions.

Contact Jim Tankersley at:jtankersley@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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