Who voters decide will be Toledo’s next mayor may depend on whether city leaders need to think “creatively,” or if they need a “reality check.”
Those are the words said repeatedly by mayoral candidates Keith Wilkowski and Mike Bell on Thursday during a debate at The Courtyard at Navy Bistro in The Docks restaurant complex.
East Toledo voters got to hear views from both candidates as they squared off in a forum sponsored by the East Toledo Club and The Press. Bell and Wilkowski finished as the top two vote getters in September’s primary, and only one will be elected November 3 to replace current mayor Carty Finkbeiner in January.
Bell attended the University of Toledo with a concentration in business, and was a UT football co-captain and student of the year. He has more than 19 years experience as Toledo’s Fire Chief and State Fire Marshal. He was the first African-American as well as the youngest person ever to lead the Toledo Fire Department with its 500 plus employees.
Wilkowski, a graduate of The Ohio State University and University of Toledo Law School, began his political career in 1983 when he was elected to the Toledo Public Schools Board of Education. He served as both vice-president and president of the board. In 1988, he was elected Lucas County Commissioner. Two years later, Wilkowski was named the city’s law director.
The debate was moved to The Courtyard because its original location, the Flaming Pit BBQ and Blues restaurant in The Docks, closed. John Szozda, Press general manager and editor, moderated the debate attended by about 40 luncheon guests.
What voters heard were two distinctly separate views regarding the Marina District, economic development, and the city’s budget.
Wilkowski wants Toledo to partner with suburban communities to create more JEDZ (Joint Economic Development Zone) and share taxes. As a law director, he has been involved in similar projects in Rossford, Maumee, and Monclova Township.
“What do we have today as a result of those zones, is there are thousands of people who are working in those zones and the City of Toledo is receiving today millions of dollars in tax revenue from those projects,” Wilkowski said.
Wilkowski wants to create a joint economic district at the Marina District and get suburban communities involved as partners in East Toledo.
Bell is willing to continue with the project as long as city funds are not used, calling city budget issues a priority.
Whoever wins the election will inherit a budget in the red and over 25,000 unemployed in Toledo, and Bell believes the city can be more responsible with city funds.
“If (the Marina District developer) is using city funds right now, the Marina project is a dead project,” Bell said. “The reason I say that to you is that if we can’t’ afford to pave our streets and we can’t afford to tear houses down, how can we continue to go down the road we’re going right now?
“It can’t happen. This is a reality check right now. I’m telling you, we need a gut-check. Until we balance our budget and make sure we’re taking care of services you absolutely want, the police, fire, and rescue, how can we invest in something that we have no authority to gain anything back right away from?
“Now here’s where the Marina District is in. If we’ve got a developer that is prepared to step up and put their own money into it, then it’s alive. But we don’t have the need at this particular time to use city money for another project we can’t afford to pay for. Right now it’s a dead issue until we can get our city budgeted and back on course. That’s where I’m at.”
Wilkowski called Bells’ response to the Marina District question a “pessimistic view of our future” that he “rejects.”
“I’m familiar with the fact that the developer there wants to be successful to the extent that it reaches across the street and it helps build up the entire neighborhood, and that’s critically important.
“I propose that we create a joint economic development sub-district right there in the Marina
District,” Wilkowski said. “What we have to do is find creative ways to get that going, that’s why I propose inviting those suburban communities to get invested in the Marina District and have a share of the tax revenue and give us something in return. Most importantly, we will have the entire region thinking about how important it is to have the Marina District development with jobs. That is what a mayor can do.”
Wilkowski stressed accessing more federal programs and state CDBG (community development block grants) money to fund city projects, including maintenance of roads, utilities, and operations.
“At this time, in 2009, with all the financial problems we have, we have to take advantage of this opportunity to do things differently. To find out how we can we collaborate with ODOT? To make sure we can deal with a whole host of government services in different ways? To administer taxes, we need to find a real good computer software program to administer those taxes and reduce the cost of government.
“We can reduce utility bills by getting people to work on energy efficiency. There are programs that are out there right now. These aren’t made up,” Wilkowski said.
“I believe that we can have a better future. I believe that all of our opportunities are boundless,” Wilkowski continued. “I look forward to working with an administration willing to do things differently.”
Both candidates believe that Toledo is mistrusted by suburban communities.
“You have to have a leadership style that can get along with people because so much of our leadership cannot get along with people,” Wilkowski said. “I can.”
Bell believes that fighting among council members has not served the city well, and he suggested applying more of a “team concept.”
“Bottom line, if you look at council as a board of directors and treat them like a board of directors, on most things you can find common ground,” Bell said. “You can’t work together if you can’t find common ground. People are using our inability to work together as a competitive edge for them.”
Bell said he does not have a “negative attitude,” that he is just being “real on where we are at.” He said his reality check” is what makes him different from other politicians.
“I would ask myself, ‘Why am I back here when I don’t have to be? Meaning, I could have remained state fire marshal and I’d be just fine,” Bell said.
“For too long, you’ve had career politicians who tell you what you want to hear because they are worried about being elected. I can be real with you. I can tell you the truth and I’m not worried about being elected.”
Bell said before the city gets involved in economic development, it needs to bring back policemen that have been laid off due to budget cuts. One of the safety issues discussed was an East Toledo substation.
“We have to have the policeman’s back. The whole point is that we have to get our police force back to where their response time is what it needs to be,” Bell said. “We need a reality check. We need to call the officers back first. The thing is a substation does not respond; an officer does.”