That reference to the regional and national economy is pushing the 58-year old incumbent to finish some projects that he called “half-done,” citing fledgling relationships with foreign investors and forging a regional water system among them.
“Those are big issues that could affect Toledo years from now,” Mayor Bell said. “But if you don’t get the foundation right now, you’re going to play catch-up for a long, long time. So I believe it’s extremely critical to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Mayor Bell commonly cites reversing the city’s budget—from a $48 million deficit to a $5 million surplus—and creating 6,000 new jobs as two of his main accomplishments.
“We’re starting to catch up with these things and I think people get a little impatient because they don’t understand that even though we’d like government to work really quick, it’s a big ship,” he said. “You cannot turn around a big ship instantaneously. It takes a little bit of time, but if you keep working at it, you can turn it around.”
Mayor Bell used that same ship analogy quite a bit in his first campaign for public office during 2009. So what is the state of that same ship with him at the helm?
“We were taking on major amounts of water and we have stopped the leak. We still have to make the significant repairs to make sure not only does the ship run in a functional manner, but that it runs in an extremely efficient manner,” he said.
“I don’t have to be doing this—I have a life preserver. But the people who also have life preservers need to stay on the ship to help those who don’t, until they have them. That’s building that foundation. When we create jobs, that’s a life preserver—and makes them able to take care of their families and their house.”
Mayor Bell extended the ship analogy to include other suburbs, stating a “hole in Toledo’s ship affects them, too.
But the former Toledo fire chief also pointed out the city continues to have a perception problem among its citizens. Despite the fact that Toledo was just named the top minor league sports market out of 235 communities across the U.S., residents tend to get hung up on lists that place Toledo in the bottom ten cities in America.
“When people say things aren’t happening here, c’mon,” he said. “It’s just an image issue. People like to beat up on themselves here—and we’ve got to change that around. If we can just get them moving in a positive direction mentally, the rest of it is starting to take place.”
Mayor Bell listed stabilizing the city budget as his biggest first-term accomplishment, but he bristled when his political opponents “tried to minimize it like it’s no big deal.”
“If it wasn’t a big deal, why, when before I came mayor, why did they lay off 75 police officers? Why did they lay off 40 other city employees? If there was never a budget issue, why were we laying people off? Was it a power issue?” he openly questioned. “We were able to bring ourselves out of that budget issue without any major layoffs of people.”
The mayor is also proud of the fact that he has appointed four Latinos directing different parts of the city—Lourdes Santiago, Executive Director of the Dept. of Neighborhoods; Linda Alvarado, Executive Director of the Board of Community Relations; Luis Santiago, Fire Chief of the Fire & Rescue Dept.; and Rosalinda Contreraz, Acting Executive Director of the Youth Commission/Services—the most ever by any Toledo mayor.
The former state fire marshal came under fire himself for maneuvering for forced contract concessions from municipal unions through “exigent circumstances. But he explained that he was once laid off as a city employee—and every union worker, in this instance, got to keep their job and their benefits.
“This could be a model for a lot of other cities that are in the same position,” said Mayor Bell, citing Detroit’s current bankruptcy as a glaring example. “60 miles up the road, they had something that was similar to ours, and they could not recover from it. We’re sitting in the catbird seat. Others are using us as an example of where they need to be.”
In fact, the mayor revealed he had an hour-long, face-to-face meeting with Detroit’s emergency manager Kevyn Orr in the Motor City earlier this summer, calling it “a great conversation.” The two leaders discussed ways to collaborate to mutually save money, such as joint purchasing contracts. The bigger picture may be to create a joint economic development zone along I-75, including the city of Monroe.
“There’s an opportunity there to work with Detroit to turn their economy around and turn ours around,” said Mayor Bell. “I believe we have the strongest skilled workforce in that corridor between Toledo and Detroit. Now how do we work that to where it becomes advantageous for the citizen, the taxpayer, to turn themselves around.”
The mayor stated he’s already had similar collaborative conversations with the mayors of Monroe, Michigan, and locally with the elected leaders of Oregon, Maumee, Perrysburg, and other suburbs.
“Instead of us fighting each other, the whole concept is we work together and get stronger,” he said. “I have reached out and we’re at a level now of being able to work together that we’ve never been.”
But Mayor Bell admitted if voters listen to his mayoral opponents, Toledo is still trapped in doom and gloom, putting him on the defensive at debates. But he called it the nature of politics and shrugged it off.
“When you’re the mayor, the only thing they can put on you is that you haven’t done something—so they put you on the defensive,” he said of his seven political opponents. “If you look at the results, then it’s pretty clear. But if you want to make stuff up—like the $48 million deficit didn’t exist or it’s unsafe here—okay, then what is unsafe? What are you using when you say crime is rampant and what city are you using to benchmark?”
The mayor stated his main goal in his second term would be to shore up the city’s school system, because it would encourage people “to move back to the city.” But he said his record so far speaks for itself, despite the contentions of his opponents.
“People really need to sit down and look at what people say they’re going to do in this campaign—versus what they really can do,” he said. “Where’s that money going to come from? I understand I made some people mad, but there was no simple way to solve this (budget crisis). People in Detroit are mad, too—but people here still have their jobs.”
Editor’s Note: Next week in La Prensa, mayoral candidate and incumbent Lucas County Auditor Anita López will be profiled for a primary scheduled for Sept. 10, 2013.