Cuts Opposed By Many at Meeting

WHEELING – An audience of frustrated residents made their feelings known Tuesday about City Manager Robert Herron’s plan to trim more than $1 million from Wheeling’s future budgets by reducing the city’s work force, a plan which includes leaving 10 vacancies in the police department unfilled.

No decisions were on City Council’s agenda concerning the plan Herron unveiled Monday to trim about $826,000 from this year’s budget and another $310,000 annually from future budgets, primarily through cutting about 20 mostly vacant positions. But for the second day in a row, a capacity crowd packed the room as police, firefighters and concerned residents turned out to address City Council about the proposed changes.

No current city employee would be laid off under Herron’s plan to trim 20 positions, which calls for a number of job vacancies to remain unfilled and the remaining few eliminations to be accomplished through attrition. The cuts will affect several departments, including fire, public works and sanitation. The police force would shoulder the brunt of the impact, losing 11 of its 83 currently budgeted positions – meaning its 10 current vacancies will remain unfilled with another slot to be cut when someone else leaves.

Most of those who addressed council members at the end of the meeting believe council needs to look elsewhere for cuts rather than reduce the size of the police department.

“How would you feel if it’s your family member who can’t get a response from an officer because he was tied up?” said Sgt. Tom Howard, president of the Wheeling’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38.

Tina Birkett of Washington Avenue argued the increase in transient workers in the natural gas industry living in the area make it necessary to keep the police force at full strength.

“We need our safety forces. … Mr. Herron, I understand you just got a big fat raise. Give it up for these people. These people make a quarter of what you make,” Birkett said, referring to Herron’s 2013 salary increase from $95,000 to $110,000 after he became a finalist for another job in Kalamazoo, Mich.

When City Council approves percentage-based raises for employees, it’s the department heads who benefit the most, added Robb Bauer of GC&P?Road.

“Two percent on $100,000 compared to 2 percent on $30,000 is a joke,” he said.

Following those comments, Mayor Andy McKenzie was quick to defend Herron.

“If you want to be mad at someone, be mad at me,” McKenzie said. “The buck stops here. … This man fights for the city employees every day. The six years I’ve been here, he’s said nothing but good things about the employees.”

McKenzie then challenged those in the audience to come up with a better way to keep the city’s finances stable.

“If you’ve got a way to cut $1 million from the budget, let’s talk about it. We have two options: We can cut expenses, or we can raise taxes,” he said. “Do you want to pay higher taxes?”

Other concerns voiced Tuesday include the fate of the prevention resource officer program in the city’s schools, as well as whether there will continue to be a dedicated patrol officer for Wheeling Island. Herron assured the audience the PRO program will continue, as Ohio County Schools provides funding for officers in schools. The Island patrols are paid through federal Community Development Block Grant money, he added, with the allocation for police patrols actually increased from $50,000 to $72,000 this year.

One speaker, Alex Coogan of Wheeling Island, said he supports reducing the size of the police department, which he believes is too large.

“You guys are facing a tough decision, and I applaud you for facing it head on. … It is not an issue of manpower, it’s an issue of deployment,” Coogan said, though he urged city leaders to avoid reducing any funding for the fire department, as the city has a large number of old buildings which could be fire hazards.

The proposed spending cuts come as Wheeling ends its tightest budget year in recent memory. Herron told council members Tuesday the city’s cash carryover from the 2013-14 fiscal year, which ended Monday, is $232,798 – $200,000 of which is built into the budget, leaving $32,798 in unappropriated funds.

“That’s the lowest amount we’ve had in the last 15 years,” Herron said.

In other business, council voted 6-0, with Councilman David Miller absent, to award construction contracts for two downtown projects. James White Construction of Weirton will complete a long-awaited renovation of Market Plaza for $634,560, while Savage Construction of Wheeling will build the new Heritage Port Gateway Park on the former Waterbed Warehouse Property at 11th and Main streets at a cost of $51,469.

City Council’s next meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. July 15.