Council OK’s tax abatement; Cooper Industries’ early ’90s layoffs cited during debate

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 13

Is economic development a moral issue?

Councilman Peter Gerken thinks so, and doesn’t want to see tax dollars going to businesses that have laid off hundreds of Toledo workers.

But Mr. Gerken could not convince his colleagues at last night’s council meeting. He was on the losing end of a 10-2 vote to approve a $225,000 tax abatement package for Cooper Industries.

In 1989, Cooper bought Champion Spark Plug Co., one of Toledo’s industrial giants, from the Stranahan family. It once employed 3,500 Toledoans. A year later, Cooper laid off 430 employees, closed Champion’s Toledo plant, and left a small, shrinking core of operations here.

The Finkbeiner administration had asked council to approve the abatement to encourage Cooper to keep its Upton Avenue facility, which employs about 120 workers.

Mr. Gerken said he didn’t want to support a company responsible for laying off so many Toledoans from a 83-year-old city icon.

“A tax abatement is a use of our resources, and we need to be careful who we give our resources to,” he said. “Cooper has not been a good player in this community, and they should not be rewarded.”

Presenting the administration’s view was economic development commissioner Barry Broome, who said throwing away the last 120 jobs wouldn’t help anyone.

“I think we’re giving this company a reason to stay,” he said. “I don’t see why we should risk losing 120 jobs because we lost a thousand or two years ago.”

Cooper had promised to invest $2.8 million in improving its building and obtaining new equipment, but only if the abatement was approved. Mr. Broome said he expected “a significant job loss” and the eventual departure of the facility from Toledo if the abatement failed.

The jobs remaining are high-skilled technical jobs, with average salaries between $45,000 and $50,000 a year, he said.

Arguing against Mr. Gerken, Mr. Broome said the city would be fully reimbursed for all lost tax revenue if Cooper left town, and that the company had agreed to pay more than $121,000 to Toledo Public Schools in lieu of taxes.

Mr. Gerken said that was not enough, and that providing Cooper with an abatement would mean forgetting the hundreds laid off.

“We’re going to have to make a distinction between what’s good economic development policy and what’s good moral policy,” he said.

In the end, though, Mr. Gerken could only get Councilwoman Edna Brown to support his point of view. Councilman C. Allen McConnell, who before the meeting was expected to vote against the abatement, changed his mind and voted yes.

The council sat through more than seven hours of meetings last night, considering 89 pieces of legislation – a record for city government since the strong mayor system was introduced in 1993, officials said.

Highlights from other action:

* Council passed its capital improvement budget for 1998, after only minor additions for small projects requested by individual council members for their districts.

The largest chunk of the budget is dedicated to the Stickney Avenue Jeep plant, with $12 million of the $44 million budget dedicated to the project.

Last-minute additions to the funded projects list yesterday include doubling the $50,000 dedicated to building an addition to the Aurora Gonzales Community and Family Resource Center in Bob McCloskey’s District 3; $6,000 for roof repairs to a building in Detwiler Park, requested by District 6’s Jeanine Perry, and $5,000 for electrical work in Riverside Park, at the request of Edna Brown of District 4.

* Council wants to have a baseball stadium built downtown, they decided unanimously in a resolution last night. In May, Lucas County voters will vote on a one-quarter-cent sales tax to go toward construction of a new home for the Toledo Mud Hens, who play in Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee.

The tax would be in effect for 35 months, generating $35.4 million.

Councilman Rob Ludeman, however, was quick to point out that the resolution was simply a statement of support for “the concept” of a downtown stadium – not the tax that county commissioners hope to fund it with.

* Council voted unanimously to allow the city to begin eminent domain proceedings against U.S. Reduction Co., whose plant stands in the way of the Stickney site for the Jeep plant.

Robert Reinbolt, the Jeep project coordinator, said the city’s negotiations to buy the property have not gone well. Chrysler had asked to have the property in hand by today to begin construction.

* Council OK’d the purchase of 10 marked cruisers and 20 mid-sized sedans to replace aging Toledo police department vehicles, at a cost of $511,000.

* At the request of Mrs. Perry, council withheld action on raising green fees at public golf courses.

Mrs. Perry objected to the poor condition of a fence at Detwiler Park and asked her colleagues not to support raising fees by $1 for some tee times until she had a written cleanup plan from the city.