Bell tells task force to ‘think outside the box’Written by Kristen Criswell | | firstname.lastname@example.org
At the first two Citizen’s Special Investigation (CSI) meetings, Jan. 25 and Jan. 27, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell encouraged members to “think outside the box” when it came to ideas on how reduce city expenditures.
“Everything is on the table. In pursuit of moving forward, options are wide open,” Bell said.
The CSI task force will make recommendations on how Bell’s administration can tackle a nearly $44 million general fund shortfall for 2010, which includes a $9 million carry-over deficit from 2009. The two meetings covered what Bell’s administration has been examining within the budget as well as discussions of what the CSI group’s role would be.
Steve Herwat, deputy mayor for internal operations, shared that the administration had been looking line by line through former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s proposed 2010 budget and that the CSI’s job would be to make “bigger picture” suggestions.
The city has been exploring ideas to increase resources in the taxation division to more aggressively go after the $21 million of outstanding income tax, is looking at benefits the city would gather from selling certain properties and is examining new tactics for collecting red light camera violations, including legislation to boot cars or keep drivers from getting their license renewed. The city is also examining concessions with union and non-union employees on health care and pension benefits.
Bell has not proposed any [lay-offs] to help balance the budget because taxpayers are paying for a service and they should get what they pay for, he said. If the city cut all nonessential employees it would gain $13.5 million toward balancing the budget. However, Bell noted that cuts may be necessary for the city to be operating as lean as possible.
When presenting the balanced budget to Toledo City Council, the cuts are going to start on the floor of the mayor’s office, Herwat said. The mayor’s office currently works at $256,000 less annually than former Mayor Finkbeiner’s office, even with promotions and raises for a few employees.
Bell acknowledged the city may have to increase taxes to help cover the budget shortfall. The city has an income tax at 2.25 percent, a number that hasn’t increased since 1983.
“We have to face a reality about our current tax; it hasn’t been raised since 1983. How many things do you know haven’t risen in cost since 1983? So that’s part of the issue. We haven’t raised anything, we’ve had people leave our city, we’ve had businesses leave our city. We have to be able to balance this budget,” he said.
If voters approve an increase in income tax from 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent, the city could generate $7.5 million by July 1.A proposed tax increase would have a sunset clause associated with it that starts once Toledo was out of economic difficulty it would cease, Bell said.
When it came to generating ideas to combat the budget, Bell told the CSI committee to speak openly and feel free to “rip” the city if need be.
“It is important that you challenge us. This is exactly what we’re trying to get done. The people out there are going to challenge us,” Bell said. “If you have those red flag questions, get them to us so we can start looking for ourselves. If something sounds like B.S. ask us to explain and justify it.”
At the Jan. 25 meeting, CSI members suggested the city consider examining the city’s 60 capital funds as sources of revenue for things that are coming out of the general fund.
At the Jan. 27 meeting, the city determined that Herwat’s salary, which is funded 100 percent by the general fund, could be funded by other areas, with only 20 percent coming out of the general fund.
Other suggestions made by CSI members included a possible entertainment tax, having citizens pay for their trash cans and selling back taxes to a third party to collect similar to what the county did previously. Additionally, the task force suggested the city examine the properties they lease and consider having the lessees cover utility costs instead of the city.
Bell asked CSI members to forward ideas on how to balance the budget. He said his office will meet Jan. 30 and Jan. 31 to compile a preliminary list.
“We need to start pulling the trigger. Put something on paper so we have a list of what we’re proposing and will be discussing,” Bell said.
The task force consists of 13 individuals. Members include union leaders, professors and business leaders.
The group will meet twice a week while developing recommendations for Mayor Bell’s administration on how to balance the budget.
The city must submit a balanced budget to city council and have it approved by March 31.