Payroll Cuts May Save City $1M

WHEELING – Looking to head off looming fiscal challenges, Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron on Monday proposed cutting about 20 mostly vacant positions from the city’s budget, a move he expects could save more than $1 million annually over the coming years.

Herron’s proposal amounts to about $826,000 in spending cuts – or about 2.75 percent of the budget – for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which begins today, with an additional $310,000 in annual cuts during future years.

He also recommended an across-the-board, 6-percent reduction in the city’s business and occupation tax that would reduce revenue by about $600,000 per year, compared to the $1 million in B&O cuts originally proposed last year as a companion measure to the city’s new sales tax.

The bulk of the spending cuts would come by eliminating about 20 full-time positions over the coming years. Most of the positions to be cut are already vacant, Herron said, with the remainder to be eliminated through attrition.

“No current city employee would lose their job as a result of this proposal,” he said.

The police department would take the hardest hit, as its 10 vacancies would remain unfilled, with an 11th position to be cut through attrition. Herron also plans to cut two positions in the Operations Department, three in the Water Pollution Control Division, two in the sanitation department and one in the fire department.

Another five full-time positions in the Operations Department would become part-time positions, also through attrition.

Herron said Wheeling’s financial position is strong compared to many other cities, but he cautioned the spending cuts proposed may only be a temporary fix.

“That savings is going to vanish over a period of time, due to cost increases and the fact that revenue growth is not keeping up with those increases,” Herron said, referring to issues such as pension obligations and rising health insurance premiums.

“It’s a small reduction, but I think it goes a long way to send a message to taxpayers that we are going to be prudent, we are going to be responsible,” Mayor Andy McKenzie added following the meeting.

In hopes of speeding along the attrition process, Herron is proposing a one-time retirement incentive that would be open to all city employees who are at least 60 years old with a combined age and service time of at least 90 years, except police and fire employees. The incentive would equal one-third of the employee’s salary.

Herron said 29 employees will be eligible for the retirement incentive, though he doesn’t expect most of them will take it.

Employees would have until Oct. 1 to decide whether to participate.

Other recommendations include changing the command structure within the police department to have fewer officers of higher rank; establishing fees for police and fire protection at non-city sponsored festivals and special events; and a new fee for emergency response to false alarms.

Although Herron has the authority under the city charter to make many of the proposed changes on his own, there are some that will require council approval, such as changing the number of sergeants, corporals and deputy chiefs on the police force, and enacting a false alarm fee ordinance. It’s not clear when council would vote on any of those measures, though it’s expected further discussion will take place at the Finance Committee’s regular meeting on July 15.

Items Herron said he’s not yet recommending, but which may warrant future consideration, include privatizing the city’s garbage and recyclables collection and asking employees to bear more of the cost of their health insurance.

Herron said he also may, in the future, recommend substantial increases in salary for the remaining police department positions to stem the flow of officers leaving for higher paying jobs with other agencies.

Councilwoman Gloria Delbrugge and Councilman Robert “Herk” Henry were particularly critical of that suggestion, saying it raises a question of fairness.

“I don’t know how you can do this. You can’t give the police department a raise and not give the rest of the employees and the fire department a raise,” Delbrugge said.

With the city’s new sales tax projected to bring in about $2.04 million during this fiscal year, Herron said $600,000 of that will go to offset the B&O reduction. The remaining $1.44 million would be divided as follows: $620,000 each for infrastructure repair and improvements to WesBanco Arena, and a $200,000 contribution in each of the next five years to the city’s rainy day fund, which would double its balance from $1 million to $2 million.

Wheeling firefighter and paramedic Tom Haluscak, who is secretary/treasurer of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 12, said even though only one vacant position in the department is expected to be cut, every person counts when it comes to fighting a fire.

“To make sure we come home safely to our wives and sons and daughters is what’s most important to us,” Haluscak said.