LIMA — For eight election cycles, Lima Mayor David Berger has made his case to the city’s electorate, and this year, he hopes that the city will entrust him to lead for four more years.
Berger recently spoke with The Lima News editorial board on why the city should give him four more years at the helm. Here are excerpts:
How do you respond to people who say, “David Berger’s done a good job, but 28 years is a long time. We need to have some fresh ideas”?
First of all, I think while 28 years is a long time, that doesn’t mean I’m out of fresh ideas. As I told someone recently, I guess somebody fresh out of law school versus someone with 28 years of legal experience, that’s, I think, a valid comparison.
Experience matters. Time on the job matters. It brings real value.
Similarly with a doctor, I think if you go to a doctor fresh out of school versus somebody who has a number of years of experience, you can count on somebody with a good reputation and good skills.
I think I have both. I have a good reputation and I have good skills. The ideas that the administration is pursuing, I think, continue to be timely and continue to be fresh to the needs of the community. We respond to the challenges and opportunities that present themselves.
What do you think are the strengths and opportunities for the city?
We have, right now, the strongest economy in over 40 years, and when I look around the state, not every community in Ohio can say that. I think we have overcome enormous challenges, and coming out of a recession, we have continuously built the economy to the point where we now have. As you have been, I think, reporting consistently for about a year now, a job surplus that is significant — 1,500 jobs within the region that have been continually refreshing themselves, meaning that people are continuously posting new jobs.
I think, in addition, we have enormous development happening in our community and a really unprecedented renewal of the downtown, as well as overall development happening in the community as a whole. So those are strengths that I think that, as long as the national economy doesn’t go into the ditch, are strengths that will continue to grow.
I do believe that we’re making progress on the issue of connecting people to those jobs. Recently, I was in a meeting with a local plant manager where she talked about the fact that they had just hired 30 new people and half of them — 15 of those individuals — she had asked them where they were from. They said they were from Lima, but they had moved away, and then they had heard about the new jobs and they had come home.
That tells me that both the formal communication systems as well as the informal ones with friends and family members are beginning to share that information, and people are beginning to respond to those opportunities. I think that’s good. That’s terrific. It strengthens the community, it brings people home, it roots people who want to be here in place to continue grow the human resources that we have.
What do you think are the weaknesses and threats the city’s facing?
Well, when I look at our industrial base, there is, and I’ve been talking about this for a couple of years now and it’s been highlighted in a Toledo Blade article, there is a threat represented by electrified vehicles and the technology that is emerging very rapidly.
The threat is actually on both sides of town. If electrified vehicles come to the fore and take over, we certainly have a challenge with the production facilities that Ford has here for their engines, and on the west side of town, we have a refinery that makes product to run in those engines.
So it seems to me we have to be aware that that kind of technological change represents a threat to a pretty fundamental base of our industrial economy and be about the business of how we engage with them to make sure that those companies are anticipating the change and how we’re working with them to renew.
Certainly, the issue of crime and drugs represents a big challenge. So we need to continue our efforts, both with law enforcement, focused on community policing and pinpoint policing to continue to pursue the violent crime that does occur in our community, and we also have to continue to recognize that Ohio remains in the epicenter of the opioid crisis, and it requires us to both be pursuing drug dealers but also providing an enormous array of options for treatment and engagement with our community around opioids, the need for both education of our young people, education of our entire community around the use of painkillers and the treatment options that we’re now successfully expanding through St. Rita’s and Coleman.
I’d say another challenge remains the conditions of neighborhoods, and we’ve been aggressively pursuing the removal of blighted housing. We need to continue to do that, but we also need to begin to help foster the infill construction and reutilization and repurposing of some of that real estate. With some of these lots, we think there are opportunities to stimulate the housing market, the single family housing market in particular, by making the lots available very cheaply, by matching it with the 100-percent, 15-year tax abatement program that the city has and by prequalifying those lots with bank financing so we can get individuals interested in building new housing to do so in an easy way.
Where do you see the economy heading in the next few years, and as mayor, what effect do you think that would have on the way you run the city?
Well, I think that we have several continuing efforts with our task force efforts, with the auto task force as well as Task Force LIMA, so we need to continue those outreaches.
The auto task force networks all our automotive and transportation-related businesses, and we try to connect them to resources for being able to grow their businesses. That includes both technical resources as well as human resources. With Task Force LIMA, we (took) a delegation to Washington to meet on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon, to work on continuing to inform our Ohio delegation, particularly, of the needs at the JSMC, to thank them for their bipartisan support, but also to keep them focused on the need to continue to invest in the facility.
We’re also, through the Allen Economic Development Group, working on the opportunities to continue to attract industrial businesses here through our industrial parks. I think recently we’ve seen a couple of those efforts pay off with two new companies: Recleim and deSter. Those are ongoing activities.
I think the bigger challenge and the newer challenge, really, is the workforce challenge. We were able to obtain grant resources from the Department of Defense, and we used those resources to do strategic planning for our region. Those plans identified the fact that over the next 10 years, we’re going to eventually have 20,000 job openings available.
That’s a function of both a forecast of continuing, modest growth in the economy matched by the tsunami, the wave of Baby Boomer retirements that’s taking place, which is inevitable. That’s going to create this turnover in positions with organizations here, and we have to connect the people to those opportunities. We have to connect them to the job training resources.
We did a successful event recently with the Black Ministerial Alliance and the building trades, and that was focused on the fact that any year going forward, there will be 300 apprenticeship positions available in the construction trades and industrial apprenticeships, as well.
The issue is, how do you get people to know about that? How do you make sure they understand what an apprenticeship is and why that’s a really terrific opportunity for someone who doesn’t want to go to college. It’s really an opportunity for them to get paid to learn a skill. It can be everything from carpentry to electrical to plumbing to pipefitter jobs, and those are there and will continue to be there. There are other kinds of opportunities like that.
We’re in the early days of putting in place permanent systems for connecting people to those job opportunities. So we’re seeing success with MakerFest, with Home Field Advantage, with the variety of efforts that are underway to connect to both to college graduates as well as to kids coming out of high school, making sure that they, their parents and their guidance counselors are aware of these opportunities.
Can you give us an example of how you’ve found compromise with a group of people you would typically would disagree with?
I think the current issue around rental registration is a good example. The administration did research. We’d been hearing for several years of concerns from council members and concerns from the community triggered in some significant part by the amount of student housing that was now emerging, where single family units were becoming purchased by landlords who were then turning it into student housing. There was a concern from residents about how disruptive that was in the community.
So we began over a year ago to research what the options were. We found rental registration as an approach, and we developed a proposal for an aggressive approach to that, something that would be comprehensive and something that would attempt, in short order, to bring about positive change.
We submitted that to council. It sat there for some months, and then when it did finally start moving, it got picked up by my opponent and some others, including landlords, who turned it into a political football.
The bottom line here is that I don’t get to legislate. I don’t have a vote. What we did was recommend an approach, but ultimately, it’s up to city council to pick and choose the various elements of a program to put in place. I have an opinion and I’ll continue to advocate for rental registration that pays for itself and does, on some periodic basis, whatever that could be — annually, every other year, based on complaints, on some basis — involves both external and interior inspections.
Again, I don’t get to define this. Ultimately, it’s city council and the public who will weigh in on this and decide what the final framework is. I believe something more needs to be done, and I’ll work with folks in order to get to the point where we can, in fact, move ahead.
It could be, at the end of the day, that city council will do nothing. That’ll be their choice. It won’t be because the administration didn’t attempt to weigh in, come up with viable options and engage in substantive policy discussion around what we need to do to protect the public, protect property values in our neighborhoods and, ultimately, try to stimulate renewal in those neighborhoods.
Any other observations, plans or thoughts on attacking the crime issue in the city?
First of all, I think that what our police department has done is demonstrate a creativity in their work. They now have, for example, a really terrific team trained up on using social media. What that has meant is both an efficient way to share information but also to connect with people. For example, they now have upwards of 30,000 followers up there on social media. So when there’s a photograph of a suspect, their ability to actually circulate that information and ultimately find people is just incredible. The rapidity of that communication loop has demonstrated its value.
Their willingness to work with the community in partnership through community oriented policing and with other law enforcement has demonstrated an ability to effectively partner and pursue solutions.
We are also in the middle of trying to finalize their selection of body camera technology. I expect that at the end of this year or the first of next year, that selection process will be completed and we’ll move ahead with that. I know it’s been an expressed demand from a number of the black ministers in the community to have that done.
There is no opposition, first of all, to that from the troops nor from the administration nor from me. We’ve all been just very concerned that we get a technology that will work, one that we can afford and one that truly does allow us to manage public records requests effectively.
You’re opponent has talked a lot about making Lima a business-friendly city and “government moving at the speed of business.” What’s your reaction to that?
Government is not business. Government is a service organization that provides a variety of services, and so we need to be efficient and we need to do that with all due respect for both the expectation of customers but also fairness. So often, there are competing demands, whether it’s on a code enforcement matter where someone calls in with a complaint about an individual or a property. When we respond to that, we need to treat the parties involved both as the law prescribes, which often allows for certain time-prescribed procedures, as well as with a respect for them.
Furthermore, when it comes to the issues particularly around buildings and permits, we enforce not the city’s codes, but the state’s codes. Folks always the option of taking their building requests and going to Columbus. We have the local service in order to make it more convenient, but we must process that and hold people to the standards that the state specifies. And that’s what we do.
When there are issues, we work with folks. We work and engage with people continuously to solve issues and get problems solved. One way that we’ve done that, and my opponent has mischaracterized this continuously, is that we have an outside review with Wood County. People come in and they make an application for a building permit, and they get processed in the order in which they come. If somebody wants to get a faster review, we have the opportunity for them to pay an additional fee that gets paid to Wood County, so they can go do that work. It’s not additional money to us, but it is a way of expediting that, and they get a quicker turnaround.
So we have, in fact, been responsive to customers. We’re looking for ways to, in fact, meet their needs. This time of year, for example, the rush is on right now because people want to get their footers in the ground before winter comes. So there’s a huge crush of demand, so that opportunity to go to a third party to get it expedited is, I think, a good way for us to respond to that extra demand.
Ours is not just a service inside the city. We actually are a contractor with other jurisdictions inside the county, so we have a countywide reach with that service, and people appreciate that.
Tell us what you’ve learned during this particular campaign about yourself and about your constituents.
I think it’s always the case that folks are concerned about what is immediately in front of them. So it’s often necessary in this process to kind of rehearse important history for folks to understand. Certainly with young people, they weren’t here 28 years ago when I was first elected. They don’t have the historical background, and often even with others who have been here, they have forgotten it. But we have dug ourselves out of an enormous hole. When you look back at the Rust Belt — and the term Rust Belt is not understood by young people. You and I understand how Rust Belt economics work, but if you ask somebody who’s 20 years old, or 25 years old or 30 years old of how Rust Belt economics work, that’s not a term they’ll be able to define for you.
So when you look at the total losses from before I ever came to town up to and including into the 1990s, we lost in our community more than 20,000 good paying jobs. The pain of those losses was immediate and then sustained. So when you look at what has happened to our community over time, it’s important for people to understand that those losses were real.
Then we had, in additional to those losses, additional threats which could have devastated this community. Had we lost the refinery, we’d have a 900-acre desert out there. Had we lost the JSMC, an incredible asset would be gone, or the engine plant if they hadn’t ultimately put another engine in there. Just think for a moment how badly we would have been affected if we hadn’t successfully defended those industries.
And we have come out of those. We have grown, and we’ve gotten it to the point where we now have, as we talked about, a job surplus that we could not have imagined. So I think that what I’ve learned is the need to not assume that folks know, because they don’t. They’ve either forgotten or they never knew it. So I think that history has had consequences, consequences in the physical structure of our community, consequences in terms of the way in which we now operate, who’s here, who’s not here and understanding that we have to refresh that for folks that they understand where we began and what we’ve been working on over time in order to cure that.