Saturday, February 24, 2024

Outflow: Wealth transfer in City Politics

It was perhaps D. Michael Collins’ greatest political victory. Even though he won it posthumously, and never got to see its fruits.

It all started back when Collins was a curmudgeonly member of Toledo City Council, and Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee. The City’s budget was tight, and regularly money from City coffers, earmarked for capital improvements, was used to pay expenses from the general fund. A large chunk of that shortfall was traceable to the criminal justice budget, including the transportation and housing of defendants who had been arrested by the Toledo Police Department. The related costs for those defendants, at the Lucas County jail and the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio, ran upwards of five million bucks.

Collins was convinced the tax burden of those costs should not be borne on the backs of Toledo taxpayers. Toledo was paying costs for housing, transportation, and prosecution of prisoners arrested elsewhere in the County, outside of Toledo. He harangued successive City leaders, and TPD top brass, claiming that the City should stop charging those arrested under sections of the Toledo Municipal Code, and instead lodge charges under sections of the Ohio Revised Code, thus making the State of Ohio, not the City, responsible for those arrested, and the associated transportation and housing costs, shifting those costs to Lucas County, according to Collins.

Then-Mayor of Toledo Mike Bell never bought Collins’ argument. But then Collins defeated Bell and became Mayor himself. He immediately instituted the change, and told TPD to charge under ORC whenever possible. For those of y’all unfamiliar, most parts of the TMC criminal code have analogous sections in the Ohio Revised Code.

The County just as immediately pushed back, and made moves to prevent the cost shifting from the City to the County coffers. Collins argued that the City had been paying criminal justice costs for all parts of the County, including jurisdictions which do not pay City taxes, for years. It was only fair that the entire County pay its share, rather than shifting the burden to Toledo. The disagreement ended up in court. Meanwhile, Collins passed away in office, and Paul HH took his place.

Court time

PHH doubled down on Collins’ argument, stating that it didn’t matter how anyone arrested was charged, instead arguing that all criminal justice costs belong to the County, because the Ohio Constitution creates a system of state courts at the County level. Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas was hired by the City to bring the argument home.

The City won the case in the Court of Common Pleas. The County appealed. The dispute spilled over and became part of the wrangling over the location of a new County jail. The County, via Commissioner Pete Gerken, threatened to move the jail, and its hundreds of jobs, out of the City.

Then the City offered its tow lot as a jail location, but refused to couple any negotiations about the Jail location with a discussion concerning the criminal justice costs. The County, meanwhile, demanded that any negotiations include all outstanding issues, so the talks broke off.

Fast forward to today. The City ultimately prevailed in court, shifting criminal justice costs to the County. A new jail site still hasn’t been determined. As we’ve written before, a stance on the jail site should be the numero uno question for all candidates for Lucas County Sheriff. (Current Sheriff, John Tharp, is not seeking re-election which has led to a bevvy of candidates seeking his elected position.)

Spread the wealth

More importantly, the saga of cost shifting from the County to the City should be a cautionary tale in the upcoming elections. There are at least two additional ways that County costs are shifted to the backs of Toledoans.

Remember, most of the County revenues are generated in the City, it being the largest jurisdiction and population center. Yet at least two County offices spend large sums of money outside the City, and nothing inside it. In fact, these two offices spend very little in any of the cities in the County, instead spending in the townships.

One is the LC Sheriff. Deputies police those parts of the County that don’t have their own police departments. Meaning the townships. With the smallest populations. Which generate very little County revenue.

There is nothing to prevent the Sheriff’s office from collaborating with other police departments which would lead to spending County money in all parts of the County. The recent joint policing of Downtown Toledo is an example. Question? Will the new Sheriff expand this idea, and spread the expenditure of County revenue throughout the County?

Likewise, the LC Engineer’s office spends gobs of money on road design in the townships, but nothing in Toledo. There’s a new elected County Engineer, Mike Pniewski. He is up for election this fall. Will he work collaboratively to spend County resources across the County?

To Collins’ credit, he shined a light on the transfer of wealth from the City of Toledo to the rest of Lucas County, calling out the shift of the burden of criminal justice costs to the backs of City taxpayers. It’s time to root out this burden shifting elsewhere, or at least explore the reason why the City is paying for County costs in these areas. New LC Sheriff and LC Engineer, we’re looking at you.

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