McKenzie To Give State Of City Address

WHEELING – Improving the efficiency of government, the possible impact of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposal to cut local shares of gambling revenue and recognizing those who have made a difference in the Friendly City during the last year are just a few of the issues Mayor Andy McKenzie will explore in his upcoming State of the City address.

McKenzie will deliver the fifth-annual address at noon Tuesday in the ballroom at downtown’s Capitol Theatre.

In the midst of a tighter-than-usual budget year, McKenzie said the fate of the governor’s lottery bill is one of the biggest challenges facing Wheeling right now, as the city would take an estimated $250,000 annual hit if it passes. The city has already seen its gambling revenue dwindle by $1 million during the past five years, largely because of competition from new casinos in neighboring states.

McKenzie believes state leaders need to look elsewhere to balance the budget.

“They want to fix their problems on the back of local government … so that’s a huge concern,” McKenzie, a state senator before he became mayor, said. “The Legislature needs to deal with their own problem.”

Even without state funding cuts, McKenzie pointed out, the cost of government continues to increase. Employee health benefits are of particular concern, he said, and could mean changes moving forward.

“We will continue to deliver services, but we’ve got to figure out how to be more efficient,” he said.

He didn’t offer specifics, but said that increased efficiency could come from a reduction in employment, or changes to workers’ benefits structure. Much of that will depend on what happens in the Legislature, he said, because city revenues remain stable.

“If state government leaves us alone, then we will never have to lay anyone off,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie said other topics he may touch on include possible new initiatives under the state Home Rule Pilot Program, which gives certain cities, including Wheeling, more control over their own affairs; sales tax collections, which he said picked up in January after a sluggish first three months; and a number of new housing projects on which he expects to see progress in the coming year, including projects on Washington Avenue and in North Wheeling and Elm Grove.

But there’s still a shortage of new homes in the $150,000-$200,000 range in demand by young professionals – an issue the city must look to address.

McKenzie said he puts a great deal of thought into the address each year. He keeps a stack of notes from conversations with residents and business leaders throughout the year, on which he relies heavily for inspiration in drafting his speech.

“It’s an opportunity for me to take all those conversations and thoughts and put it in a 20- or 30-minute speech,” McKenzie said of the State of the City address.

Part of his preparation for the speech each year involves revisiting the previous year’s address. A few announcements that have yet to come to fruition remain on his radar, he said, including a review of the city charter, the creation of additional historic districts and repealing the current business and occupation tax break for downtown businesses – which he termed “a great idea that didn’t work” – and replacing it with more incentive-based tax relief that rewards new ventures or expansions of existing ones.

About 100 already have reserved tickets for Tuesday’s State of the City, but there should be tickets available at the door, according to city Marketing Director Allison O’Konski. Those interested in reserving a seat should email, or call O’Konski at 304-234-6432. Doors open at 11:30 a.m. There is no charge to attend the speech, but the cost is $10 to eat lunch, which will be catered by Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack.