Mike Bell strokes his graying mustache as he thinks over his first 12 months as mayor.
He pauses a long time before deciding to answer a question about how the job has changed him personally.
"It hasn't," he answers.
In his first year in office, Mr. Bell says he faced several major challenges but says he also accomplished many positives. One of the first challenges hit before he took the oath of office. The administration of Carty Finkbeiner left him a $48 million general fund deficit -- the largest fiscal shortfall Toledo had ever faced.
Toledo under Mayor Bell was on track to end 2010 with a balanced budget, even though money problems loom again in 2011.
Mr. Bell is proud that the 2010 budget was balanced without layoffs, a new class of police recruits was hired, 44 miles of roads were fixed or replaced, and more rundown buildings were razed than ever before. The Toledo Fire Department will swear in 50 new recruits in a ceremony to be held today.
Mr. Bell said the city "stabilized" basic services and avoided police layoffs, unlike in 2009 when Mr. Finkbeiner handed out pink slips to 75 officers.
"We did some things that had not been done before in being able to move forward and toward [employee] concessions and take a $48 million deficit and bring it down to almost zero," he said. "Accomplishing that, or being pretty close to accomplishing that, in itself is a pretty outstanding thing to do."
Steve Herwat, deputy mayor of operations, confers with Mike Bell in the mayor's office. Mr. Bell says his popularity among residents is strong even after proposing water and sewer rate increases and pushing through the trash fee increase.
Mr. Bell angered city employee labor unions along the way, persuading a majority on Toledo City Council to vote for "exigent circumstances," legal jargon for nullifying the parts of their contracts the city felt it couldn't afford any longer. The move forced the unions to make concessions they would never have agreed to in previous years.
The mayor this year also turned his focus to regionalism, attempting to sign a deal to take over the Ottawa Hills fire service. Council so far has balked at the plan, worried that it would anger their labor backers and put the city in a protracted dispute with the union representing Toledo firefighters.
Mr. Bell led a trade mission to China with area businessmen looking for investors interested in Toledo and, more recently, he tried -- so far unsuccessfully -- to push through council a hefty water and sewer rate increase to pay for upgrades to the city's antiquated water and sewer system. Some parts of it date to the Civil War.
"Most of the stuff we have set out to do, we have accomplished. It doesn't mean we have done everything," Mr. Bell said. "One of the bumps in the road people would consider is the Ottawa Hills deal."
The plan to take over the village's fire service for a $430,000 annual fee is stalled in a council committee because a majority of the 12 members haven't committed to approving it. Killing the still tentative contract will whack the 2011 budget out of balance, the mayor said.
"I would think it's a simple thing for regionalism, but we can't get our council to agree," he said.
The city's budget has occupied most of the mayor's first year of his four-year term.
"I think one of the things he has done, and City Council as well, going into this year, we had a $48 million deficit, and we apparently have wiped that out," said Mark V'Soske, president of the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce. "We will see how we go into next year but that was a huge mountain to move, but he got it done."
To help balance the budget, the mayor also aggressively stepped up collections of delinquent income tax by hiring more people to go after scofflaws, instituted a garnishment program, pursued outstanding red-light camera fines, attempted to sell city properties, and temporarily rescinded the income tax reciprocity for Toledoans who work outside the city. That was reinstated when voters passed a ballot initiative to allow the transfer of money from the capital improvements budget to the general fund.
He also raised the monthly trash fee. It previously was $8.50 for those who didn't recycle and $1 for those who did, until March 30, when a divided City Council increased it to $15 a month. Council later knocked it down to $5 for seniors with homestead exemptions and who recycle, $8.50 for other Toledoans who recycle, and $15 for Toledoans who do not recycle.
The largest share of balancing the 2010 budget came from concessions from the city's major unions: the AFSCME units, firefighters, police patrolmen, fire battalion chiefs, and the police command officers.
After city council's forced concessions were imposed on most unions on March 30, many of the unions negotiated less severe concessions that included deferring overtime payments for 2010 into 2011. The police command union is still fighting the forced concessions at the state level.
Mr. Bell said his popularity among residents is strong even after proposing water and sewer rate increases and pushing through the trash fee increase.
He acknowledged his approval rating is probably slipping with city workers.
"We are in a cultural change," the mayor said. "The private industry has probably gone through it, but government itself nationally has not moved toward the issues we need to address to make it more efficient … Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look it, we are trying to make the appropriate adjustments while still trying to maintain a pretty good work force."
That essentially translates into paying less to city employees, a trend city union leaders naturally resist.
Don Czerniak, president of AFSCME Local 7, said Mr. Bell hasn't communicated enough with the unionized city work force.
"There was all this hype and it was all the same thing all the other mayors have promised about sitting down with us to be more transparent, but I don't believe that has happened," Mr. Czerniak said. "My union has taken everything we can. We have lost over 400 general fund jobs and that is where the problem is, so he needs to give police and fire their own budgets and make them live within those means."
Mr. Czerniak said it's really still too early to rate the mayor's performance governing the city through the recession.
"He came into a lot of controversy and financial problems and, yes, he has weathered the storm, but could he get everything done in a single year? No," he said. "To accomplish anything, it is going to take the full term and it takes a full year just to get his feet wet, so I don't think it's fair to grade him at this point."
Mr. V'Soske of the Chamber of Commerce gives Mayor Bell higher marks. In just 12 months, he said the mayor has changed the attitude of city government toward businesses.
"When it comes to relations with the business community, it really transcends to how can business do business with the city," he said. "While doing business with the city is never easy, it is a lot easier than it used to be and the mayor's whole attitude has been 'How can we get it done,' and that is noticeable."
City Council President Wilma Brown, who is one of the most pro-Bell supporters on council, said the mayor got through a good agenda in 2010.
"I think he has tried very hard to make us understand and show us the predicament we are in with the budget," Ms. Brown said. "He made us understand that staff workers, everyone, has to give back to make it work and also he has been all over with businesses to make connections."
Councilman Joe McNamara, who supported fellow Democrat Keith Wilkowski for mayor last year, said Mr. Bell's priorities the past 12 months have been misdirected.
"I am disappointed because I feel Mayor Bell does not stand up for the residents of Toledo enough," Mr. McNamara said. "For example, his treatment of neighborhood groups and neighborhood issues. He seems to not want to be engaged in those issues."
Councilman McNamara is critical of the mayor's support for allowing Cleveland developers to use Section 108 loan money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for a large part of a nearly $22 million project to renovate the vacant Berdan Building downtown into 123 one and two-bedroom loft-style apartments.
"His desire is to use 108 loans for projects that seem to help special interests more than the people who live in Toledo," Mr. McNamara said "The economic development efforts do not seem focused on raising the medium income of residents and that would be the biggest benefit, and that is disappointing."
He also questioned the mayor's desire to allocate $150,000 of federal funding that could otherwise be used for neighborhood issues to a newly created Downtown Toledo Development Authority and pay the salary of an executive director.
"I see a value in what he is doing, but I think he is not focused on the residents of Toledo first," Mr. McNamara said.
Mr. Bell is a political independent who likes to tell people he is not a politician. He's had no problem bumping heads with entrenched Democrats, whose party has run Toledo for decades with support from neighborhood groups and city labor unions.
And as always, the mayor brushes aside criticism.
"As mayor, I don't have time for negative stuff. … I knew that anybody who was going to run Toledo was going to have to take some hits to do what is right to make Toledo survive and be successful" Mr. Bell said.
"If you are going to change the environment of your city, you need to figure out how to create new jobs … and that is why I am pursuing a lot of these international business groups because they may have a solution to some of the problems we have here in Toledo," he said.
"I do believe our visits to foreign countries will pay off and I don't believe it is that far down the road."
Contact Ignazio Messina at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6171.
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