No Decision on Budget Cuts

WHEELING – Wednesday’s meeting of Wheeling City Council’s Finance Committee ended without a decision on City Manager Robert Herron’s proposal to cut more than $800,000 from this year’s budget by eliminating about 20 mostly vacant positions.

Herron said Wednesday his plan would leave the city with a surplus of about $630,000 when the new fiscal year ends next June. Conversely, filling all the city’s employment vacancies – including 10 in the police department – would put the city more than $250,000 in the red, he estimated.

But city leaders aren’t prepared to sign off on Herron’s plan just yet, with some suggesting the city explore additional fees or taxes as a way to avoid at least some of the cuts. Following a lengthy discussion, the committee chairman, Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey, called for a motion to recommend City Council approve Herron’s proposed budget revision, with no response from his fellow committee members, councilmen David Miller and Don Atkinson.

Herron’s proposals include some measures to increase revenue, including charging fees for police presence at special events and for emergency response to false alarms. But he doesn’t expect the revenue from those fees would be substantial.

Councilman Ken Imer, who has said he opposes reducing the size of the police force, asked during the meeting whether the city could enact a user fee to boost the city’s income.

“That is certainly something City Council has the authority to do,” Herron said.

Herron said other cities in West Virginia, including Charleston, Huntington and Weirton, charge user fees. In Weirton, everyone who works within city limits pays $2 per week for the privilege of doing so.

“I think it’s important that we look at the revenue side, as well,” Fahey said.

Miller asked whether the city could free up money to fill a few of the police vacancies by reducing the overtime budget. But Herron said spending on police overtime hasn’t increased dramatically, even with fewer officers, rising only slightly from $255,000 during the 2012-13 fiscal year to $269,000 during the 2013-14 year, which ended June 30.

“There’s always going to be the need for overtime. … You would never be able to eliminate overtime completely,” Herron said.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Gloria Delbrugge, who also has said she’s against cutting police officer jobs, criticized the 2-percent pay raise given to all city employees last fall. The raises cost the city about $300,000, Herron said.

“Had we not given the 2-percent pay raise, we’d still be sitting here having this conversation, in my opinion,” Herron said.

Sgt. Tom Howard, president of Wheeling’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38, said many of the department’s officers are working multiple double shifts per week to keep up the department’s minimum staffing level.

“There’s no way these guys can keep that pace. They’re running ragged. … If you look at some of the guys now, they’re walking zombies,” he said.

Herron acknowledged the changes would lead to some restructuring within the police department to alleviate the overtime situation.

“What we need to do … is operate as if we have 72 officers, not as if we have 78 officers, when we only have 73,” he said.

Wheeling fire Lt. Jason Milton, vice president of International Association of Firefighters Local 12, said his organization adamantly opposes any cuts to the fire department, and the city’s safety forces in general. Herron’s proposal involves cutting the fire department from 94 budgeted positions to 93 by filling only one of its two vacancies.

Both Howard and Milton asked the city to consider additional revenue raising measures rather than eliminating jobs. Mayor Andy McKenzie asked both the police and fire unions to put together proposals over the next week or two on how the city could cut expenses without employment reductions.

“I don’t think just putting a greater burden on the taxpayers is the answer,” he said.

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, Herron told committee members the city ended the 2013-14 fiscal year with a $232,000 cash carryover, compared to $255,000 a year ago before and about $1 million the year before that. Because Wheeling budgets for a $200,000 carryover each year, that leaves just $32,000 in unappropriated funds.

“That’s pretty close – too close for comfort,” Herron said.

The committee voted unanimously to support Herron’s recommendation that the $32,000 be placed in the city’s contingency fund.