Port maps battle plan for levy; Public events, P.R. firm top list

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Like generals marshaling their forces, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority officials laid out their battle plans for the agency’s upcoming levy campaign.

“I believe the campaign has to begin today,” said J. Patrick Nicholson, vice chairman of the port board. He and fellow board member George Ballas were named co-chairmen of the port’s levy committee and charged with convincing voters that the port’s good deeds merit the spending of tax dollars.

Their plan: more meetings with the public and hiring a good public relations professional.

The port lost its first battle in November, when Lucas County voters rejected renewal of a 0.4-mill levy. The levy, which produces about $2.2 million a year, will expire at the end of the year.

About two-thirds of the levy’s proceeds, or $1.45 million, go to the Regional Growth Partnership, which does economic development work for a 10-county area in northwest Ohio. The rest goes to the port authority.

Port officials said they will try again and picked the Nov. 2 general election for the attempt. But they said they will try to wean the port authority’s operations from reliance on tax dollars during the next five years.

“Over that time, we should be aiming at not relying on the levy for our operational costs,” said James Hartung, president of the port authority. “We should be totally self-sufficient.”

The money generated by the levy could be used instead for capital improvements, he said.

Mr. Hartung said he hopes the growth partnership will be able to reduce its reliance on tax dollars and that the port authority is much closer to being able to do so. The port authority gets the majority of its funding from user fees and other nontax sources.

Mr. Nicholson said a key part of the board’s message to voters will be that the levy’s defeat would mean the demise of the growth partnership, which he said “everyone knows has done a great job.”

The growth partnership gets about three-quarters of its funding from the levy’s proceeds.

“If this levy falls apart, they’re gonna shut the doors,” Mr. Nicholson said. “That would be disastrous for the community.”

He said he will ask Don Jakeway, president of the growth partnership, to take an active role in promoting the levy.

Port officials said their biggest job will be informing county residents about the port’s work and successes. Too few people know what the port’s role in the local economy is, they said.

“The port authority literally is a player in almost everything that goes on in this town,” Mr. Hartung said.

“Sometimes an accomplishment gets forgotten or minimized because what we do is so complex,” said G. Ray Medlin, chairman of the port board.

To that end, port authority officials will be touring the area in the coming months, holding public meetings to spread the port’s message.

According to a draft of the port’s community outreach plan, each meeting will feature computerized and videotaped presentations about the port’s work, specially tailored to each municipality or neighborhood that officials visit. The meetings, scheduled for April through June, will have “an important local leader” in each area as the host.

The areas to be targeted include all municipalities and townships in Lucas County, as well as Perrysburg, Rossford, and Northwood in Wood County. A total of five neighborhood meetings will be held in Toledo.

Mr. Hartung contended that the meetings are not directly levy related. If they were part of the campaign, port dollars could not be spent on them under state elections law.

“There are a lot of things we can do that aren’t levy related,” he said. “This is just a part of our efforts at outreach in the community.”

But the levy committee’s members – board members David Boston and Dan Smith, along with Mr. Nicholson, Mr. Medlin, and Mr. Ballas – were unanimous in their insistence that the port’s public relations push extend far beyond meetings.

Mr. Nicholson said one of the most important tasks for the campaign committe will be to hire a top public relations firm to manage the levy’s campaign.

He recommended Hart & Associates of Maumee to do the work, but no decision has been made.

Several board members were critical of the work done in the last campaign by Jim Ruvolo, the former chairman of the Lucas County and the Ohio Democratic Party organizations, who was paid $12,000 to coordinate last year’s unsuccessful levy fight.

“He did a poor job,” Mr. Ballas said. “We need some professional help now.”

Last year’s levy was defeated by more than 12,000 votes, 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

The first step for the levy campaign, Mr. Hartung said, will be putting together a campaign committee to accept donations and handle advertising and public relations.

Mr. Nicholson said he wants to ask Lloyd Mahaffey, director of the United Auto Workers’ western Ohio region, to co-chair the campaign with Thomas Palmer, the Toledo lawyer who chaired last year’s losing campaign.

Mr. Mahaffey did not return calls last night seeking comment.

He would be the second union official named to a high-profile, port-related post.

In December, Mr. Medlin, the executive director of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Health & Safety Fund of North America, became port board chairman.

Board members, prompted by Mr. Ballas, briefly considered reducing the size of the levy to make it more appealing to voters. But in a matter of seconds, they nixed that idea, saying the full amount is necessary for the growth partnership’s work.

Mr. Nicholson said shrinking the levy would mean it could not appear on the ballot as a tax “renewal,” which could turn off some voters if they think it is a new tax.

The levy committee considered holding a special election but decided against it because the port would have to pay for the vote, Mr. Medlin said.

But he added that the November date is less than ideal because it will be a “low-interest election.” The only races scheduled for that election are for municipal court and school board seats.