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City on The Edge

The Economy Has Put Columbus, Ohio, in A Tight Spot. Stimulus Funds Have Created Some Wiggle Room, But for How Long?

President Obama is traveling to Columbus, Ohio, on Friday to attend the graduation of 25 police academy cadets whose jobs were saved by the stimulus plan, thanks to Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009; Page C01


Several weeks ago Mayor Michael Coleman was staring into a financial abyss.

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"I couldn't sleep," the mayor says of a $13 million shortfall in the city's $630 million operating budget. "And that shortfall was already after I had made cuts to the bone. It was like those hard times my parents used to talk about."

Locals expected the 54-year-old, third-term Democratic mayor to find a magic wand. Instead, he sharpened the budget ax anew, and started swinging hard and wide.

More than a dozen recreation centers were shuttered, some in the city's poorest neighborhoods. About 170 city employees have been laid off since August. That has prompted some grumbling in this capital city of 730,000. It turned deafening when the mayor announced on Jan. 27 that 25 members of the new police cadet class, who were poised to graduate from the police academy after six months of training, would be pink-slipped even before they hit the streets.

"Now that was like saying to the hoodlums: 'Go on out and do your thing,' " says Charles Russell, a 76-year-old retired truck driver who lives near one of the shuttered recreation centers.

Three weeks later, Coleman found himself visiting the White House during a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He aimed to ask White House officials -- "I mean I was on a mission" -- about securing stimulus money to save his cadet class.

"I ran with them on the first day of class, as I do with every class," he says of the cadets. "This was personal."

After negotiations with the White House and Justice Department, Coleman secured $1.25 million in stimulus funds and rescued his cadets. "It's the kind of stuff that only happens at the end of movies," he says.

The president is scheduled to travel here today, along with Attorney General Eric Holder, to take part in the swearing-in of the new police officers.

"President Obama opened a door and I just stepped through it," Coleman says. "I'm here to tell you that the stimulus bill works!"

But Coleman -- who in recent years has announced a series of ambitious building projects, from downtown to the depressed east side -- is under no illusion about what lies ahead. "This is new for us, even traumatic," he says of the city's economic situation.

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