City’s Track Take Lower

WHEELING – The Friendly City’s coffers are on pace to take in record-setting revenue for the second straight fiscal year, but one source that feeds directly into Wheeling’s police and fire pension funds is lagging more than $100,000 behind last year’s clip.

On the heels of a fiscal 2011-12 in which Wheeling took in about $30.2 million, overall revenue at the end of December – the midway point of the budget year – is more than $118,000 ahead of this time last year, according to City Manager Robert Herron. But in a year that saw new casinos open in Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo in neighboring Ohio, the city has received $103,304 less in video lottery machine tax proceeds from Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack than it had at the end of 2011.

Since 2001, Wheeling has allocated 100 percent of tax revenue from racetrack video lottery machines as a supplemental contribution to the pension funds. As such, Herron said any shortfall there will have no impact on the general fund – but it may temper to some degree the pace at which the city is able to pay down its approximately $52.6 million unfunded pension liability.

“Those supplemental payments have made a tremendous impact,” said Herron.

Since 2000, the city’s police pension fund balance has increased from about $2.1 million and 7 percent funded to $13.5 million and 33 percent funded, and fire pension fund assets have climbed from about $3.4 million and 10 percent funded to $12.3 million and 25 percent funded over the same period. Compare that to the state’s capital, Charleston, where the total unfunded liability is more than $250 million and the police and fire pension funds are just 8 percent and 5 percent funded, respectively.

To be considered fully funded, a plan must have enough assets now to meet all anticipated obligations for current and future retirees.

Some of the improvement is driven by a state requirement that municipalities increase annual contributions to the police and fire pension funds by 7 percent each year, so general fund contributions to the police and fire plans are expected to increase from $1.7 million and $1.65 million to roughly $1.82 million and $1.77 million next fiscal year. That total increase of about $240,000 is less than half the projected $500,000 supplemental contribution.

Herron said there are indications things may be on the rebound – for example, December alone saw $62,715 in video lottery revenue collections, more than twice the total brought in from July through November. If collections continue at that rate for the remaining six months of the fiscal year, the city will at least approach its $500,000 projection.

Overall city spending is outpacing last year by about $280,000, but Herron said that was expected due to the 2-percent pay raise City Council granted all municipal employees in August and expenses are right on schedule.

With the exception of gambling revenue and fire service fees, virtually all the city’s major revenue streams are ahead of last year’s levels. Herron said the reported decline of $102,240 in the service fee is somewhat misleading, as about $80,000 of that is attributable to more residents choosing to split the $95 annual fee into two payments and should come in later this year.

Business & Occupation tax collections are particularly encouraging, Herron noted, as they are about $156,000 ahead of last year’s pace.

According to city Finance Director Michael Klug, it’s too early to speculate what, if any, cash carryover will be available when the fiscal year ends June 30. He said the picture may be clearer after this month, which is typically a big one for B&O tax collections.

“January will be a very critical month – it always is,” said Klug during a recent meeting of City Council’s Finance Committee.