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Tom Feran
By Tom Feran September 23, 2011

Building a Better Ohio says Toledo once laid off now-Mayor Mike Bell when the city was out of money

Toledo Mayor Mike Bell appears in a TV commercial endorsing Issue 2, the November voter referendum on Senate Bill 5. The ad was made and paid for by Building a Better Ohio, the largely business and Republican-backed political action committee supporting SB 5, the law passed earlier this year that restricts the collective bargaining power of Ohio's public unions.

Bell, who was elected as an independent in 2009, talks in the ad about his support for Issue 2 because it will give communities tools to help control spending and balance budgets without laying off workers or raising taxes.

He starts the discussion saying: "Years ago, I lost my job as a firefighter because my city ran out of money."

Building a Better Ohio adopts Bell’s statement as its own on its website.

PolitiFact Ohio took notice. Bell's record and experience make him worth listening to. A firefighter and certified paramedic who went on the job in 1980, he became Toledo's youngest-ever and first African American fire chief in 1990, and held the post for more than 16 years. After he retired, then-Gov. Ted Strickland appointed him State Fire Marshal.

The commercial also stirred our curiosity. Did Bell really lose his job in a budget crunch and was it at all related to labor issues?

So PolitiFact Ohio looked deeper into the record.

Bell was one of 61 Toledo firefighters and 240 total city workers laid off in a budget crisis in 1980, not long after he went on the job. Three fire stations were closed.

But that happened more than three years before the state's current collective bargaining law took effect, so PolitiFact Ohio wondered what relevance SB 5 would have -- a question also raised by unions in Toledo.

According to accounts in The Toledo Blade, the 1980 layoffs followed a 1979 impasse in negotiations between the city and unions (after the final offer of a three-year contract including 2, 1.5 and 1 percent pay raises) that led to a strike by municipal employees, including police and firefighters -- even though the Ferguson Act prohibited strikes by public employees in Ohio and provided for dismissal of strikers.

"What ensued," The Blade reported, "was a 48-hour gap in public safety that allowed mayhem to rule the streets." Residents armed themselves, and "countless" fires were set.

The budget crisis was not resolved until voters in 1982 approved a "temporary" increase in the income tax, which has been renewed ever since.

Retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas was a Toledo councilman helping a bipartisan campaign to pass the tax increase in 1982, and he helped negotiate new safety contracts about two years ago. He told The Blade that Toledo's current budget problems, struggling to afford labor contracts with safety forces, mirror those of 1982.

"The only difference is the magnitude of the number in present-day dollars," he said. "We had exactly the same problems two or three times during my tenure in council."

In the ad, Bell says he knows Issue 2 "will give communities the tools they need to get spending under control and balance their budgets without raising taxes on you or laying off good employees."

PolitiFact Ohio isn’t rating that part of Bell’s statement today. Whether SB 5 is the answer remains hotly debated and we are not examining its merits or flaws.

But the claim that Bell was once laid off as a firefighter is accurate. And it is true that his layoff followed an impasse in labor talks with city workers and a strike.

On the Truth-O-Meter, the claim about Bell in Building a Better Ohio’s rates True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Building a Better Ohio, "The Tools They Need," Sept. 6, 2011

Toledo Blade, "Bell stars in TV ad pushing for SB 5," Sept. 7, 2011

Toledo Mayor Michael Bell, official biography

The Plain Dealer, "Shaker Heights Fire Chief Donald Barnes is fired by mayor for refusing to cut his budget," July 7, 2009

Toledo Blade, "Senate Bill 5 backers defend Bell ad timing," Sept. 8, 2011

Toledo Blade, "Mayor Bell voices support for SB5," Sept. 1, 2011

Columbus Dispatch, "Campaign Ad Watch: Pro-Issue 2, ‘The Tools They Need,’" Sept 8, 2011

Toledo Blade, "Bell retreats from tougher concessions - Police asked to temporarily pay 3% to pensions, defer OT," March 25, 2010

Toledo Blade, "City deficit has parallels to '82 plight - But Bell vows tax increase would truly be temporary," Feb. 7, 2010

Toledo Blade, "Troubled financial history seems to repeat itself Leaders have turned to layoffs, tax increases, or renewals to balance budgets over the years," March 4, 2007

Toledo Blade, "Critics, backers spar on bargaining limits; Attack on labor or sound fiscal management?," Feb. 27, 2011

Interview with Toledo Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat, Sept. 21, 2011

Toledo Blade, "Some question claims made in Mayor Bell ad supporting Issue 2," Sept. 9, 2011

WUPW-TV, "Mayor Bell on SB 5," March 14, 2011

Journal News, "History of public employee collective bargaining in Ohio," Sept. 18, 2011

Testimony of Toledo Deputy Mayor for Operations Stephen J. Herwat, Ohio Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee, Feb. 15, 2011

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More by Tom Feran

Building a Better Ohio says Toledo once laid off now-Mayor Mike Bell when the city was out of money

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