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Published: Tuesday, 1/26/2010

Task force told to innovate to fix deficit

BLADE STAFF
Mayor Mike Bell directed his 'citizens special
investigations'  group, 'Think outside the box. Think way outside the box.' Mayor Mike Bell directed his 'citizens special investigations' group, 'Think outside the box. Think way outside the box.'
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Toledo Mayor Mike Bell had a major directive for the first meeting of his "citizens special investigation" task force:

"Think outside the box. Think way outside the box."

"I am not worried about a political career. I am worried about getting this fixed," Mr. Bell told the group that convened for the first time yesterday afternoon.

"So if you are worried about something uncomfortable, raise it."

The problem the Bell administration is struggling to fix is a $43.8 million general fund shortfall for 2010.

The red ink includes $9 million carried over from 2009.

The 13 members of the so-called CSI task force began their job with questions mostly on what their role will be, how their recommendations can be put into effect, and how far outside the box they can think.

For example, Brandon Cohen, a lecturer at the University of Toledo college of business administration, suggested selling some of the city's delinquent income taxes to a collections agency, similar to what Lucas County did to collect unpaid property taxes.

Mayor Bell last week offered Toledo City Council his first draft plan for balancing the budget.

That plan relies on voter approval in May to increase the income tax to 2.5 percent from 2.25 percent to generate $7.5 million beginning July 1, union approval of a 10 percent wage reduction for all general-fund jobs, and having employees pay 20 percent of health care costs.

Mr. Bell pointed out that the city had not sought a tax increase since 1983, but in the same period most other governmental agencies have gone to the voters for more funding.

"People here feel they are way overtaxed, but we have not raised anything since 1983," the mayor said during the two-hour discussion.

The budget-balancing plan also includes collecting $1.18 million from the $2.2 million of outstanding red-light-camera fines.

Steve Herwat, deputy mayor of operations, said council would be asked to approve towing or immobilizing vehicles when owners have not paid their fines.

Also included in the mayor's plan is selling city properties such as The Docks to raise about $3 million.

Mr. Bell said he suggested selling park parcels, which immediately drew criticism.

"If you are going to sell something, it has to be something someone wants, not just something you want to get rid of," the mayor said.

Some of the city's union leadership serve on the task force, and Mr. Herwat assured them last night that the group's meetings would not become negotiating sessions.

He said the city would engage in "substantive discussions" with the unions in private.

Dan Wagner, president of the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association union, and Don Czerniak, president of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 7, both are on the task force.

Both men have said they would not agree to concessions.

Mr. Wagner was not present at last night's meeting.

Mr. Herwat also told the task force that its job would be to offer "bigger-picture" suggestions to fix the problem, rather than going through the budget line by line.

"That is our job," he said.

Mr. Bell said his staff had already identified savings from the budget, but he stressed that that alone would not balance the budget.

Task force member Lawrence Conway, a retired UT dean and instructor, said part of the challenge faced by the city is gaining the public's trust.

"We are on the way to establishing a trust that needs to be done," Mr. Conway said. "We have to be working on this together."

Louis Escobar, a former City Council president, said holding a public meeting in each council district would help educate residents about the city's financial crisis.

The shortfall stems mostly from a steep decline in income taxes, caused by soaring unemployment and the loss of manufacturing jobs, said Councilman George Sarantou, who also is a member of the group.

The Bell administration is assuming the city will take in $202.27 million in revenues this year, which includes an estimated $136.1 million from 2010 income taxes.

That figure is down from an estimated range of $138.7 million to $140 million expected to be collected for 2009.

Also on the committee are Perrysburg Administrator John Alexander, Deborah Barnett of Huntington Bank, Charles Chambers of Chambers Business Consulting, Dan Frick, retired managing partner of Ernst & Young of Toledo, Roosevelt Gant of construction contractor R Gant LLC, KeyBank Senior Vice President Rick Gray, Wayne Hartford, president of Toledo Firefighters Local 92, and Don Saunders, former city of Toledo finance director.

The committee plans to meet twice a week. The next meeting is scheduled for tomorrow at

4:30 p.m.

- Ignazio Messina



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