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Published: Wednesday, 5/27/2009

Toledo City Council rejects plan to charge for fire calls

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo City Council took another stand last night against using fees and higher taxes to balance the city's budget and rejected Mayor Carty Finkbeiner's plan to bill homeowners' fire insurance policies for service calls.

Council President Mark Sobczak and Councilman Wilma Brown voted in favor of the plan, but the other 10 councilmen voted down the fee, which would have generated about $500,000 through the end of 2009.

"I still think this continues to be an attack on homeowners," Councilman Michael Ashford said before the vote.

Mr. Sobczak said the city is "$20 million-plus in the hole" and would need to put into effect some even more onerous measures at the end of the year if council doesn't soon find ways to increase revenues or slash expenses.

In lieu of the fire fee and the mayor's other proposed "revenue enhancements," Councilman Frank Szollosi suggested council consider legislation he first drafted months ago in another form that would implement up to 263 additional layoffs if the city's unions refuse to make concessions.

Among the layoffs would be 131 police officers in addition to the 75 laid off on May 1, 41 firefighters, and 91 civilian employees.

His original plan called for as many as 341 city workers to get layoff notices - a move Mr. Szollosi said would force the administration and the unions to negotiate concessions.

He withdrew the motion pending the outcome of a fact-finder meeting scheduled for tomorrow with the city and the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association.

Robert Reinbolt, the mayor's chief of staff, said council is running out of options with its repeated dismissal of the administration's plans.

Mayor Finkbeiner's proposals to bring in more revenues have languished for months without council authorization.

The mayor is also pressing council to increase the city's refuse fee to $10 for people who do not recycle and to $7 for those who do.

The fee changed May 1 under a previously approved structure to $8.50 a month for those who don't recycle and $1 for those who do.

Mr. Finkbeiner also wants to generate more than $3 million by cutting in half the income-tax credit for Toledoans who work outside the city.

Council has made it clear the administration won't get more money until it negotiates concessions.

The tax credit has already been rejected by a majority council.

Fire Chief Mike Wolever, who repeatedly told council the city would only "soft-bill" the fire fee and would not bill homeowners directly, said he was disappointed with last night's rejection.

"I believe we are on the right track with this, and I think [council] will realize in a couple of years that cities all over the United States are doing this," Chief Wolever said.

The chief said the city has soft-billed for ambulance service without a single complaint of directly billing residents.

"We bill the insurance company, and if they said they won't pay, then that's it," he said.

Even with the assurances of the Finkbeiner administration, the proposed legislation would technically allow the city to bill homeowners directly.

"The concept of soft-billing is very disingenuous," Councilman D. Michael Collins said.

Mary Bonelli, spokesman for the Ohio Insurance Institute in Columbus, said a study conducted based on insurance companies writing nearly 93 percent of the homeowners insurance coverage in the Toledo area found that more than 41 percent do not provide such fee coverage when responding to a fire.

"Regardless of what's being said, the ordinance as written states that local homeowners are responsible for any fire-related expenses not covered by insurance," she said.

Allstate insurance agent Jennifer Zielinski said all of the company's homeowner and landlord policies do include the protection for such a fee, up to $500.

State Farm Insurance also has a fee provision of up to $500.

In other business, council voted 11-1 to extend by 120 days an agreement with Tetra Tech Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., on its option to purchase 25 city-owned parcels - including the Erie Street Market - for $4.2 million.

Last year, the company announced plans to develop the area near Swan Creek downtown into a $300 million, mixed-use riverwalk development.

The firm's purchase agreement let the company evaluate the property and determine whether it's feasible.

It had to pay the city $25,000 if closing had not occurred by Nov. 1 and $50,000 more if closing has not occurred by Dec. 31.

Mr. Reinbolt said company officials indicated they would pull out of the deal by today - taking with it all money paid so far to the city - without the extension.

Council last night also reduced the salary for the city's mayor by 10 percent to $122,400. The change will not take effect until the next mayoral term.

Mayor Finkbeiner earlier this month said he would return to the city's general fund 40 percent - $54,400 - of his $136,000 annual salary. The move was part of his plan to balance the multimillion-dollar shortfall in the 2009 general fund budget.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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