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Published: 10/27/2009

Wilkowski goes on offensive as he and Bell spar over taxes

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Mayoral candidate Keith Wilkowski went on the offensive Monday night during a live televised debate, calling Mike Bell's job-creation plan a mere outline that essentially lacks substance.

Mr. Bell shot back by defending his plan as a detailed 25-page document and he also pointed out that Mr. Wilkowski — who again last night promised not to raise taxes — had in fact voted in 1989 to raise Lucas County's sales tax by 50 percent while a county commissioner.

“This man has been calling me ‘tax hike Mike,'” Mr. Bell said. “Now, he has a history of raising taxes, so the question then becomes, are we saying the appropriate thing politically?”

Mr. Wilkowski, who was on the offensive against Mr. Bell many times last night, defended the 1989 tax increase and called it a completely different situation that addressed a criminal justice emergency.

“The fact of the matter is that what faces us is a budget deficit that some people are going to try and use as an excuse to raise taxes and what we need to do is find a different way to deliver services,” Mr. Wilkowski said. “Those situations are totally different and I am absolutely committed to not raising taxes.”

The two candidates squared off during a 60-minute debate sponsored by The Blade and WTOL-TV Channel 11 just eight days before the Nov. 3 general election.

Mr. Bell, 54, is a former Toledo fire chief and state fire marshal. Mr. Wilkowski, 53, is a lawyer who was elected to the Toledo Public Schools board and the Lucas County board of commissioners in the 1980s and served as Toledo's law director in the 1990s.

A back-and-forth discussion on tax increases sparked the most contention between the two men who were once classmates at Woodward High School in North Toledo.

Mr. Bell said he would “stay inside the perimeter” of the city's revenues and make appropriate cutbacks but would not rule out any budget strategy.

“I will not put myself in a box to where we can't do anything,” he said.

Mr. Wilkowski was adamant several times about keeping his promise on not raising taxes.

“Our problem is not that people don't pay enough taxes, he said. “Our problem is we don't have enough people … I think raising taxes is the exact wrong thing to do and I'm not going to do it.”

The city's income tax revenue plummeted last year because of soaring unemployment, forcing the Finkbeiner administration to slash jobs — including temporarily laying off 75 police officers — and to make across-the-board cuts. Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, who is not running for re-election, also unsuccessfully attempted to push tax and fee increases through city council.

Among the savings Mr. Finkbeiner achieved for 2009 were labor concessions with new, three-year police and fire contracts, but those cutbacks expire next year and the city will likely struggle to afford 3.5 percent pay raises for police and fire forces on Jan. 1, 2011.

Mr. Wilkowski last night said he would “invite the employee unions” back to the negotiating table in an effort to save more money with further concessions. If they were unwilling to reopen the contracts, he said other tough cuts would have to be made.

Mr. Bell said last night that he would have probably voted against the city's contract with the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association if he had been on council.

In July, Mr. Bell told The Blade the agreement accomplished what the city needed — savings in employee costs — and should be adopted. He said the negotiations had been a distraction and the settlement would allow the city to refocus on the safety of citizens.

Mr. Wilkowski at the time said the contracts didn't restore the laid-off police officers and provided only a short-term fix, so they were a bad deal for citizens and would not have received his vote.

Mr. Wilkowski seized on the opportunity last night to accuse Mr. Bell of flip-flopping on the issue.

“Well then, you've changed your position then, Mike?” asked Mr. Wilkowski.

“Whatever,” Mr. Bell replied. “Whatever. Let's move. Next question.”

In another question, both men said they would work to implement recommendations of a county dog warden advisory committee, whose members last week publicly criticized the warden's office for lacking standard operating procedures for euthanasia, medical treatment, tranquilizer darting, and other routine matters.

Both candidates for mayor indicated far too many dogs were being killed at the county dog warden's agency, with Mr. Wilkowski adding that he and his wife, Barbara, had adopted a dog in 1994 from the county pound they named “Jesse.”

Asked last night who they would like to have in their administrations, Mr. Bell named Barry Broome, who was economic development director under Mayor Carty Finkbeiner in 1998 and 1999, and John Alexander, who was Mr. Finkbeiner's chief of staff in his first term. Mr. Bell added that he had not discussed employment with either of them.

Mr. Wilkowski declined to name anybody, saying he had not discussed future employment with people, and that he was focused on the campaign.

The candidates were questioned by WTOL news anchors Jerry Anderson and Chrys Peterson and Blade politics writer Tom Troy.

Mr. Bell is a registered Democrat running as an independent, while Mr. Wilkowski is running as a Democrat and is endorsed by the Lucas County Democratic Party.

They were the top vote-getters in the six-candidate Sept. 15 primary, separated by just 613 votes, with Mr. Wilkowski on top.

Both men said they would not seek another elected office if they are unsuccessful on Election Day.

WTVG-Channel 13 will broadcast a live mayoral debate today from 7 to 8 p.m. from Bowsher High School. The event is free and open to the public.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:imessina@theblade.comor 419-724-6171.



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