Monday, December 05, 2011

Toledo Council to consider two proposals for 3/4% payroll income tax renewal

Toledo City Council will hold a special meeting today to consider Mayor Mike Bell's request to place the renewal of the 3/4% payroll income tax on the March ballot.

Council must act on this in order to make the Board of Election deadline for the March ballot.

According to information from the city, it appears that there are two proposals they will discuss:

Proposal A would impose the temporary (since 1982!) tax from 2013 through 2016, with the proceeds being split as is currently done:

* 1/3 to police and fire;
* 1/3 to the general fund; and
* 1/3 to the Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) fund with the ability to transfer any of this amount, with approval of council, to the general fund based upon financial need.

Proposal B would also be for the years 2013 through 2016, but would have a different allocation - the one the Mayor requested last week:

* 1/2 to police and fire;
* 1/3 to the general fund; and
* 1/6 to the CIP.

I don't believe I need to go on another rant about how the city and its politicians have treated this temporary tax as a permanent source of funding and have continued to rely upon it for meeting every day needs. Nor do I need to again rail against them for sacrificing our long-terms needs (like roads and infrastructure) by diverting CIP funds into the general fund to cover spending beyond our means. Anyone who reads this blog clearly knows my position on those two aspects, so just consider them repeated.

In looking at the two proposals, B could be better for the taxpayers while A is better for the politicians.

With Proposal B, the CIP is still reduced through the diversion of funds to every day expenses, albeit directly for police and fire. However, the costs of police and fire are unsustainable contractually and just giving the city more money to meet the contractual obligations doesn't move us toward addressing the fact that they will always require more. The failure of Ohio Issue 2, which would have modified Ohio's collective bargaining law, means some of the fixes that could have been employed by the city are no longer available.

Now, I realize that the unions are not solely - or perhaps even mostly - to blame for the contractual issues we face; the politicians who voted for the contracts are the ones who earn the most disdain for that situation. But, as Dan Wagner, president of the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association once told me, his union would rather have layoffs for some than incorporate concessions for all, choosing to maintain higher levels of benefits, pay, and pensions and sacrifice the newer employees and the overall safety of the community. Wagner wasn't proud of this fact, but he was honest enough to admit it.

That attitude isn't unusual or even rare. The community would suffer with layoffs, but the union members who remain would still have unsustainable terms in their contracts, leading to a vicious downward spiral as costs continue to increase and layoffs continue to result.

As voters look at costs in the four years of the renewal term, Proposal B limiting the amount of money the city can transfer out of the CIP will at least guarantee some sort of funding for roads, infrastructure and other capital items, even if it is only 1/6 of what is collected.

Proposal A, on the other hand, looks better for the politicians. Under these terms, the same as we have now, there is no limit to how much the city can take out of CIP. This gives council the ability to divert some - or all - of the funds collected to whatever they want, including police and fire.

Proposal A gives the city the same ability as Proposal B, plus some. And since the diverted money can be targeted to whatever council may desire, police and fire can be the recipients.

If I had to predict, I'd say that council with go with Proposal A for two reasons: it gives them unlimited ability to divert funds as needed and it's the same as what is already allowed, resulting in the ability to 'sell' the renewal as no change, just a continuation of what already exists.

But Mayor Bell may have a better handle on the feelings of the voters and on the growing concern that long-term needs of the city will suffer considerably if diversion of CIP funds continues.

Perhaps he also believes the renewal is at risk. Bell has already said that he wants it on the March primary ballot specifically so he has both the summer and the November general elections as backups for passage should it fail in March. In effect, he wants at least three tries at getting voter approval, just in case voters would rather keep those funds for themselves.

He may be correct in his assessment that the renewal is at risk. Voters have had enough of politicians threatening them with doom and gloom of no police and no fire protection unless they get more money. In this year's November election, voters rejected roughly half of the 180 school issues on the ballot across the state - including simple renewals.

The economy has a lot to do with the voter discontent, though that is not entirely to blame. When the city spends time, effort and money creating a 19-member board to address recreational opportunities while facing a multi-million-dollar deficit, voters aren't too reassured that their limited tax dollars are being spent wisely.

In the end, though, this is still Toledo ... and it appears we have a voting populace who never met a tax it didn't like.

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