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Published: Tuesday, 3/30/2010

Bell rips Toledo City Council on budget inaction

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

As the clock ticks closer to tomorrow night's deadline for Toledo to have a balanced budget, Mayor Mike Bell harshly criticized councilmen who are refusing to pull the trigger on his plan to fix the city books.

"I think they are more worried about their political careers than they are about their city," Mr. Bell said of some councilmen during a news conference Monday.

The major parts of Mr. Bell's budget-balancing plan that cannot be implemented without council approval include raising the monthly trash fee to $15 to bring in $10.5 million, eliminating the tax credit for residents who work and pay taxes outside the city to generate $8 million, and a new 8 percent events tax to gener-ate $1 million. In addition, the mayor is asking council for the authority to unilaterally impose temporary but deep cuts in employee health insurance and pension benefits because of the unforeseen drop in income tax revenues over two years. The step would be taken under what is referred to as "exigent circumstances."

Mr. Bell yesterday also warned against the consequences of inaction.

He said police layoffs would be based on council's action or inaction during its regular meeting at 4 p.m. today or a special meeting set for 9 a.m. tomorrow, the mayor said.

The city would not have the ability to pay its employees beyond Thursday unless the budget is balanced, Mr. Bell said. He warned of the possibility of fiscal emergency.

"The time for political grandstanding, introduction of measures that do not balance the budget, and posturing for future political office is over," he said in a letter to the 12 councilmen.

"Instead, it is time for the members of council to become real leaders and work with me and my administration to balance the 2010 budget by midnight on March 31st," the letter said.

The threatened 2010 general fund deficit stands at about $25 million, down from an estimated $48 million through a series of cuts and proposed savings that include $3.08 million in concessions accepted by Toledo Firefighters Local 92 during a membership vote last week.

The Toledo Police Patrolman's Association membership rejected a nearly identical set of temporary concessions on that same day.

"In good faith, we backed off on layoffs," Mr. Bell said regarding the patrolmen's union. "Only one union stepped up. No one else stepped up."

Council President Wilma Brown, who has pledged to vote for all of Mr. Bell's requests, said she was not surprised by Mr. Bell's harsh words for her colleagues or the possibility of police layoff notices to be issued later this week.

"It's exactly what I expected if we don't do our job," Ms. Brown said. "What else can he do? I am ready to vote on all the measures that are necessary."

Councilman Lindsey Webb said she was "put off" by the mayor's accusation of political grandstanding.

"I am not running for any other office and to say we are political grandstanding, when every day we open our e-mail or run into constituents in the grocery store who say, 'Please don't raise our taxes,' we have to take that into consideration too," Ms. Webb said.

Ms. Webb said she has tried to compromise with the mayor.

"I have moved my position a lot since the beginning of the year when I was against the garbage fee," she said.

Some council members on Thursday offered amendments to Mr. Bell's requests, but all fell short of raising enough money to balance the budget.

Councilman George Sarantou offered an idea to charge a trash fee of $6 a month to those qualifying for a homestead exemption, $8 a month to those who recycle, and $15 a month for those who don't recycle. That would raise about $7.2 million, he said.

Councilman D. Michael Collins offered an idea devised with Ms. Webb and Councilman Tom Waniewski to charge $10 a month for nonrecyclers and zero for recyclers - but the plan adds an additional $5 a month for two years to cover the cost of new trash containers delivered to Toledoans.

The Bell administration said that would generate $5.2 million for the 2010 budget, which is short of the $10.5 million a $15 monthly fee would raise.

Neither plan had majority support from council last week.

Councilman Steven Steel suggested reducing the events tax back to 5 percent, have it take effect on Sept. 15, after the Mud Hens regular season is over, and exempt 501(c)3 organizations that are religious, educational, and charitable.

Ms. Webb also wants it to affect only businesses in Toledo's three entertainment districts: downtown, Uptown, and the Warehouse District.

The mayor said none of the alternative ideas would raise enough money to balance the books and none of the sponsors offered any solutions to that problem.

Councilman Rob Ludeman said he understood the mayor's frustrations but questioned his proposed budget.

"He has continuously said he presented a balanced budget, but he presented it based on things that are not fair to certain citizens and taxpayers," Mr. Ludeman said.

Mr. Ludeman said he could not support the mayor's entertainment tax, the tax credit elimination, and the refuse-fee increase, but that he would vote yes for the exigent circumstances.

Some on council are currently seeking other public offices.

Councilman Michael Ashford is running for the State House District 48 seat, and Mr. Sarantou is running for Lucas County commissioner.

Mr. Sarantou said his political aspirations will not affect his votes on council.

"I am going to do what I think is in the best interest of all Toledoans, and I am not going to do what is in the best interest of my public life," he said. "I believe that various groups of people will not be pleased … and I have not made any final decisions because, believe it or not, I am still reworking numbers."

Councilman Joe McNamara and Mr. Waniewski are both running for the state's 11th Senate district seat.

State Rep. Edna Brown (D., Toledo), who yesterday urged council to reject the proposal to create an 8 percent tax on entertainment, is running against Mr. McNamara for the Democratic nomination for the state Senate seat.

Ms. Brown said the tax would hurt the entertainment, cultural, and sports venues that create jobs downtown and attract business to the city.

She said most of the outlets are in her House district, the 48th.

Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken has already told Toledo City Council the county would seek an immediate temporary restraining order if the tax is approved by council.

Mr. Gerken said an analysis by the county prosecutor's office found that Toledo cannot legally impose a ticket tax on events held at county facilities such as Fifth Third Field or the Lucas County Arena.

If Toledo is put in fiscal emergency, a seven-member financial planning and supervision commission would be empowered to advise on spending decisions.

It would be made up of the mayor, the president of council, the state treasurer, the state director of budget and management, and three people appointed by the governor from a list provided by the mayor and council president.

The commission would have much power to investigate and oversee spending, requiring detailed plans for getting back into solvency. Ultimately it could bar the city from borrowing money.

Staff writer Tom Troy contributed to this report.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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