Human Rights Commission Supporters Flood Meeting

WHEELING – One by one, several residents marched to the podium during Tuesday’s Wheeling City Council meeting to voice opposition to a proposed 89-percent funding cut for the city’s Human Rights Commission.

At least 30 spectators were on hand for the midday meeting, five of whom spoke about the city’s plan to slash the commission’s budget from almost $66,000 this fiscal year to just $7,000 for the upcoming year, which would mean Executive Director Theresa Garrett would lose her job on July 1.

The commission has been funded entirely with federal Community Development Block Grant money since the early 1990s, but City Manager Robert Herron is recommending council give much of that money back to other agencies that were cut out of the CDBG budget last year. That list includes Wheeling Health Right, which used the money to provide low-cost medicine to thousands of clients, the Soup Kitchen of Greater Wheeling, the Seeing Hand Association and the Greater Wheeling Homeless Coalition.

Mayor Andy McKenzie has said there are no plans to eliminate the commission’s volunteer board, which could use its remaining funding for outreach activities promoting equal rights. However, the group’s law enforcement function – investigating and resolving complaints of discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations – would be passed on to the state Human Rights Commission.

HRC Chairwoman Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner said if council wants to move in a different direction with CDBG funding, it should fund the commission through the regular budget as it did in the past. She added that the group has served residents “faithfully, dutifully and diligently” for more than 50 years.

“The leaders of this city … set up a system where local citizens could help local citizens,” she said. “Relying on (the state HRC) for handling complaints is not in the best interests of our citizens.”

Frank Czerwonka, whose wife lost her job as the commission’s office assistant to funding cuts eight months ago, also does not believe directing residents to the state commission – which he said deals with complaints primarily via correspondence and over the phone – is the right approach.

“Have you ever tried to call someone in Charleston? … If you’re not standing there looking at those people, they will brush you off in a heartbeat,” Czerwonka said.

The Rev. Brandon Davis, pastor of Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wheeling, asked council members to reconsider. And the Rev. Jeremiah Jasper of Fourth Street United Methodist Church told them his “mind went back to the 1970s” when he heard of the proposed funding cut.

“This is 2013 … If you feel there is no need for the Human Rights Commission, I wonder where you’re living at,” Jasper said.

David Valentine, who works at the state Division of Rehabilitation Services office in Wheeling, recalled Garrett’s assistance in helping one of his disabled clients obtain a handicapped parking space.

The city has yet to learn exactly how much CDBG money it will receive for the coming fiscal year, but officials have been told to expect an 8-percent reduction, which would mean the loss of about $90,000. Wheeling received $1.12 million for the current year.

A council work session to discuss the CDBG budget is planned for March 19, with a public hearing on the city’s plan for the funds set for April 16. Council would then vote to adopt that plan at its May 7 meeting.

Following the council meeting, Garrett called the comments about the commission and her work “very uplifting” and said she’s staying optimistic.

In other business, council unanimously approved the transfer of the Northern Regional Juvenile Detention Center on Chapline Street to Youth Services System Inc. YSS, which operates the facility on a contract basis for the state, wants to take ownership of the property so it can obtain a loan to fix the building’s roof. Members also voted unanimously to purchase a pump for the water treatment plant at a cost of $22,685.